Nutrition and the Gluten-Free Diet

Gigi Stewart, M.A. Health Guide
  • Adopting a gluten-free lifestyle is necessary for individuals with Celiac Disease (CD) or Gluten Sensitivity (GS) in order to become and remain healthy. There is cause for concern; however, that some vital nutrients previously derived from gluten-containing foods will be lost with this dietary change. Fortunately, many naturally gluten-free foods are rich in essential nutrients such as fiber, iron, calcium, and folate, which may be lacking in a gluten-free diet.

    Fiber is perhaps best known for improving elimination; however, it is also beneficial in lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels as well as aiding in weight loss and possibly reducing the risk of colorectal cancer. Because fiber is commonly associated with wheat and bran, it may seem challenging for someone removing gluten from their diet to incorporate adequate dietary fiber into their meals. After all, breads and cereals are perhaps the first to come to mind when we think of foods that are off-limits to those with CD or GS. There are a variety of fiber-dense whole grain alternatives to wheat available that are free from gluten, such as brown rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, millet (including teff), buckwheat, sorghum, and flax.

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               These grains can be incorporated into a gluten-free diet in their whole form or ground into flours for baking. For example, quinoa makes an excellent warm breakfast cereal when sweetened with honey (or your preferred sweetener) and topped with dried fruit. Not only is this ancient grain a good source of insoluble fiber, it is also a complete protein, an excellent source of iron, and rich in B-vitamins.

    Whole grains, such as amaranth, can be ground into flours and make a healthful, fiber-rich addition to baked goods. In addition to being high in fiber, amaranth flour is an easily digestible complete protein. Begin by incorporating amaranth flour into your gluten-free flour blend by substituting amaranth for up to one-third of the total flour in your blend. Because amaranth readily absorbs water, if used alone in baking, it will yield a dense finished product, so try balancing the amaranth with lighter sweet rice flour and a bit of starch for best results.

                Remember that grains are not the only way to add more fiber to your diet. Fruits and vegetables like avocadoes, most peas and beans, eggplant, carrots, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, are excellent sources of fiber. Apples, pears, bananas, berries, and kiwi, as well as a variety of dried fruits are also high in fiber and provide a sweet snack option. In addition to the benefit of getting plenty of fiber when consuming enough fruits and vegetables, you also reap the reward of a variety of vitamins and minerals contained in these foods.

                Many fruits and vegetables are also high in calcium, which can be lacking in those with CD due to the connection between CD and dairy intolerance. When gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, this results in the inability of the gut to break down lactose, thus causing negative GI symptoms. Although the lining of the small intestine does heal after adopting a 100% gluten-free diet, that can take anywhere from three months to two years. A lack of calcium in the diet is also responsible for the increased risk of osteoporosis in those with CD.

  •             Some of the most calcium rich foods are greens like kale, collards, and chard, as well as almonds, raisins, and dates. These can easily be incorporated into the diet by adding a side dish of sautéed greens to a meal, or by making a snack mix of nuts and dried fruits.

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                These calcium-rich foods are also high in iron, another nutrient that is poorly absorbed due to the effects of gluten on the intestinal lining. In fact, many with CD are diagnosed with Iron Deficiency Anemia long before a diagnosis of CD. Iron is responsible for binding the oxygen in our lungs and transporting it to all other areas of our body, making it crucial that we have adequate iron stores. While the vegetables, nuts, and dried fruits mentioned above are good sources of iron, plant foods contain the non-heme variety of iron, which means that it is less easily absorbed by the body. Heme iron, found in animal products, is highly absorbable. This preferred source of iron is found in lean cuts of turkey, chicken, beef, and pork, as well as in clams, oysters, and shrimp. For those who do not consume meat it is beneficial to combine iron-rich vegetables with foods high in vitamin C, such strawberries, cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and citrus fruits.

                Citrus fruits are also high in folate, a B-vitamin needed for the generation of new cells (including new red blood cells), the generation and maintenance of RNA and DNA, and in helping to prevent unwanted changes in our DNA that could potentially lead to cancer. Folate is also referred to as Folic acid, which is the synthetic form of this vitamin. This nutrient is so vital to our well-being that the FDA requires some foods to be fortified with folic acid. Unfortunately for those on a gluten-free diet, most of those foods are primarily gluten-containing breads and cereals. Folate can be derived naturally from foods like leafy greens, dried beans, tomatoes, and citrus, all of which fit into a gluten-free diet.

                With so many healthy food choices that are naturally gluten-free, those of us on a gluten-free diet have endless options for creating delicious meals that will keep our bodies nourished and us feeling satisfied.


    The following sources were used in obtaining information for this article:


    Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (2010)

    Children's Hospital Boston (2010)

    American Heart Association (2010)

    USDA Nutritional Database (2009)

    Whole Grains Council (2011)

Published On: April 11, 2011