Whether you’ve just started or have been on a gluten-free diet for a while, you know it’s essential to read labels every time you shop. But understanding which foods/ingredients are off-limits and those that are safe can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a PhD in food science!
In the quest for determining the gluten-free status of everything you put in your mouth, what’s often overlooked is nutrition. Good nutrition is vital to the wellbeing of all people, but for those with celiac disease following a balanced and healthy gluten-free diet is doubly important for several reasons:
When an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten (proteins found in wheat, rye and barley), an immune reaction is triggered in the small intestine. Tiny finger-like projections or villi in the small intestine become inflamed and eventually damaged from continued exposure to gluten. This process, called “villous atrophy”, may occur rapidly or gradually over time. As a result, the body is unable to adequately absorb nutrients, especially iron, calcium and vitamin D. Also, malabsorption of carbohydrates (e.g., lactose – the carbohydrate in milk), protein and other nutrients may occur.
The nutritional status of people with celiac disease varies considerably between individuals and is influenced by several key factors that can all impact overall nutritional health such as the:
- length of time the disease is active prior to diagnosis
- degrees of inflammation, intestinal damage and malabsorption
- nutritional adequacy of the diet before eliminating gluten
By following a strict gluten-free diet the damaged small intestinal villi begin to heal and nutrient absorption from foods will be improved.
Nutritional Quality of Gluten-Free Products
Just because a product is gluten free does not necessarily mean it’s a healthy option. Many gluten-free products are often lower in key nutrients such as fiber, iron and B vitamins than their gluten-containing counterparts. This is common for pasta, cereal, bread and other baked products. Typically, the gluten-free versions of those foods are made with refined flours and starches that often are not enriched or fortified with vitamins/and or minerals. Also, baked products tend to be higher in calories because more sugar and fat are added to improve their flavor, texture and shelf life. So, that is why it is so important to compare the list of ingredients and nutrition facts label of various products in order to choose healthier options.
Healthy Gluten-Free Eating
March is “Nutrition Month” so this is a perfect time to highlight the importance of healthy eating. As a registered dietitian, I want to showcase the power of nutrition to build, restore and sustain healthy lives. My focus on celiac disease means I’m especially pumped during nutrition month. This month I’m offering a series of posts on key nutritional concerns for those with celiac disease including iron and iron deficiency anemia as well as calcium and vitamin D and their role in bone health. Whether you are newly diagnosed or a seasoned pro, you’ll be sure to find tips and considerations that will make a difference in your health and your life.
Here’s a brief overview of the most important nutritional considerations for healing and managing celiac disease.
- First, and most important: Eliminate all sources of gluten from the diet. Learning about foods/ingredients that must be avoided and those that are acceptable is the first step in creating a safe and healthy diet. This is a complex topic which is covered extensively in my book Gluten Free: The Definitive Resource Guide.
- Eat iron-rich, gluten-free foods.
- Get adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D.
- If you continue to have bloating, gas and diarrhea despite following a strict gluten-free diet you may need to temporarily restrict lactose until the small intestine has had a chance to heal.
- When looking for gluten-free alternatives choose more nutrient-rich foods. For example, consider serving whole grains such as buckwheat, millet, oats or quinoa instead of white rice. Make sure these are labeled “gluten free”.
- Choose gluten-free products that are enriched with iron and B vitamins.
- Make sure to get enough dietary fiber from foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses (dried beans, peas and lentils) and gluten-free whole grains.
My two-page tip sheet Nutrition and the Gluten-Free Diet covers these seven principles in more depth. You can grab a FREE copy here for yourself, family or friends; or for your clients plus get the latest gluten-free information in my newsletter.
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