More than a decade ago, my hair was falling out, weight was dropping off of me, and I had serious gastrointestinal distress. I was afraid that I was dying. I’d been to every doctor I could find to try to figure out why my stomach was in constant pain. No conventional doctor could find anything wrong with me, and they unanimously concluded I was making it all up for attention.
I visited a naturopath as a last resort. He took one look at me and told me, “It’s food.” He had me go on an elimination diet and then reintroduce foods one at a time to test for a reaction. When I tried a bowl of Cream of Wheat after a month of not having any wheat in my system, it happened – I felt like somebody was repeatedly punching me in the solar plexus. I immediately eliminated gluten from my life and have become progressively healthier ever since.
Back then, “gluten” – a gelatinous protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and malt – was not a mainstream word, and I had to order all of my specialty foods online. Can you say sticker shock? Now it is estimated that 1 in every 100 people have celiac disease, and, thankfully, many mainstream grocery stores carry plenty of gluten-free items, which saves money on shipping costs. Saving money when having to stick to a gluten-free menu can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Ailments That May Benefit From a Gluten-Free Lifestyle
1. Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are the primary reasons people switch to a gluten-free diet. They are very similar; however, according to Celiac.com, those with celiac disease are unable to digest gluten. In those with gluten intolerance, the body may be able to digest the protein, but it produces a severe allergic reaction.
Symptoms of both of these disorders include:
- Chronic abdominal cramping
- Distended (bloated) belly
- Chronic flatulence
- Chronic diarrhea
- Gurgling intestines
- Hair loss
- Sudden weight loss
- Inability to lose weight
- Hives, eczema, dermatitis
- Chronic sinusitis
- Learning impairment
- Anxiety, irritability
Since the symptoms of gluten intolerance mimic so many other disorders and conditions, it can be difficult to detect. I was diagnosed first with lactose intolerance, anxiety disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, and ADHD before I found out gluten was the cause of my symptoms.
2. Autoimmune Disease
People who suffer from fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome may find that they benefit from eating a gluten-free diet as well. This is because gluten has an inflammatory effect on the body. Also, those with these types of autoimmune disease have an increased likelihood of having leaky gut syndrome. In those with leaky gut syndrome, the lining of the gut is more porous than it should be, and undigested food particles enter the bloodstream, causing a state of constant inflammation.
3. Inflammatory Skin Diseases
Even those without celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance may have a mild wheat allergy. If you suffer from eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis, a gluten-free diet may help ease these conditions. Also, be very careful about your skincare products. Many commercial skincare products contain gluten ingredients, which could make your skin condition worse.
4. Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome
While no scientific evidence exists, some research has shown that children on the autistic spectrum have displayed an improvement in mental clarity, focus, eye contact, and overall behavior when placed on a gluten-free diet. It is believed this is because gluten has an opiate effect on the brain of sensitive individuals. It also acts as a neurotoxin and excitotoxin, which can contribute to behavioral problems and learning difficulties.
Pros & Cons of Going Gluten-Free
For those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, going gluten-free is an absolute must for good health and to avoid serious complications down the road, such as diabetes and colon cancer.
- Reduced gut sensitivity and inflammation
- Reduction or elimination of stomach pain
- Healthy weight maintenance
- More awareness of the benefits of label reading and better food choices
- Potential high cost
- It can be confusing at first and can lead to elimination of foods that do not contain gluten, reducing consumption of some necessary nutrients
- Lack of fiber intake from traditional sources
- Possible weight gain as nutrients are better absorbed once gluten is eliminated
Switching to a gluten-free menu can be difficult at first. Suddenly, you’re grocery shopping and you find yourself panicking and wondering which foods are safe and which aren’t.
The easiest way to handle switching to a gluten-free diet is to stick to foods that are naturally gluten-free:
- Beef, poultry, pork, and fish
- Brown rice
- All unprepared fruits and vegetables
- Hard cheese and organic yogurt
- Dried cooked beans
- Quinoa, amaranth, and millet (gluten-free grains)
Gluten-Free Food Replacements
Bread, pasta, cookies, and cakes are no longer on the menu on a gluten-free diet, right? Wrong – you just can’t eat any of those items if they contain gluten. There are plenty of products out there that taste just as good as their gluten-based counterparts.
Gluten-Free Breakfast Foods
Naturally gluten-free breakfast foods include eggs, preservative-free sausage, and bacon. Some gluten-free specialty foods include:
- Udi’s or Rudi’s gluten-free bread
- Glutenfreeda’s instant oatmeal
- Van’s gluten-free waffles
- Nature’s Path gluten-free cereals
- Protein bars (such as ThinkThin Bars, Lara Bars, Glutino breakfast bars)
Organic yogurt, hard cheese, and fruit are also some more gluten-free breakfast options.
Never think you’re going to starve on a gluten-free diet. There are plenty of snacks out there for you to nosh on between meals. Some naturally gluten-free options include whole nuts, fruit, hard cheese, raisins, Cape Cod potato chips, almond butter, veggies, and organic yogurt. Some gluten-free specialty snacks include:
- Blue Diamond nut thins
- Glutino gluten-free pretzels
- Kind bars
- Beanitos gluten-free bean chips and Tribe hummus
- Crunchmaster multi-seed crackers
Gluten-Free Lunch Foods
One of my all-time favorite naturally gluten-free lunches is the “salad that eats like a meal.” I use some dark leafy greens, organic chick peas, whole almonds, hard cheese chunks, raisins, red pepper flakes, and flax seed. For dressing, I mix olive oil and apple cider vinegar. Some specialty gluten-free menu items for lunch include:
- Udi’s or Rudi’s gluten-free bread for sandwiches
- Hormel, Boar’s Head, Applegate Farms, and Dietz and Watson cold cuts
- Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- Annie’s Natural’s mustard
- Amy’s soups
- Amy’s gluten-free macaroni and cheese
Gluten-Free Dinner Options
On a gluten-free diet, dinner might be one of your most naturally gluten-free meals. Beef, chicken, pork, fish, potatoes, brown rice, and vegetables are all naturally gluten-free. If you’re craving a pasta dish, not to worry, Tinkyada rice pasta has a similar taste and texture as wheat pasta. Deboles pasta is an option, too. I don’t prefer the taste of it, but you may love it. If you’re in a rush and don’t have time to cook, Amy’s has a great line of tasty soups and gluten-free frozen items your whole family will enjoy.
Dessert is likely to be your most expensive gluten-free item. Fruit and organic yogurt are healthy gluten-free dessert options. Other gluten-free options include:
- Breyer’s vanilla or chocolate ice cream
- Pamela’s gluten-free brownie mix
- Terra Nostra dark chocolate bars
- Enjoy Life snickerdoodles
Keys to Saving Money on a Gluten-Free Diet
1. Don’t Make It a Family Affair
If only one family member requires a gluten-free diet, don’t be tempted to have the entire family follow it – unless you’ve already planned to do so for health reasons. Just be certain to avoid gluten cross-contamination when preparing meals to avoid making the person with gluten intolerance ill.
2. Purchase “Mainstream” Gluten-Free Products
Gluten-free specialty products cropped up 10 or 15 years ago and made a killing by cornering the gluten-free marketplace. Now, many mainstream companies such as Betty Crocker, Campbell’s, and Kellogg’s are jumping on the bandwagon and offering gluten-free products that cost slightly less than their specialty counterparts.
3. Take Advantage of Coupons for Gluten-Free Products
If you’re checking the Sunday paper for coupons and getting frustrated, I understand. But believe it or not, gluten-free coupons are out there – you just have to know where to look. Check out GFCoupons.com and BeFreeforMe.com to get started.
4. Buy Gluten-Free Ingredients in Bulk
Amazon offers the option to purchase items such as gluten-free flour and gluten-free pasta in bulk. Purchase $50 worth of items or more and your products ship free.
5. Grow a Garden
Vegetables and fruits are naturally gluten-free, so while you can save a great deal of money by buying them from farmers’ markets, you may wish to grow your own produce with a home garden to save even more. There are a variety of types of home gardens you may wish to try – just choose the one that fits in best with your living space.
6. Join a Local Support Group
Many cities and towns offer local support groups for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Getting together with like-minded people who all must follow a similar diet can allow you to buy in bulk, swap coupons, and cook together to save money. To find a support group in your area, visit MeetUp.com.
7. Use Gluten-Free Recipes
A simple Internet search can yield many easy recipes for a number of gluten-free dishes that you can easily prepare with items already in your kitchen. Two items of particular note include:
- Casseroles. Saving money on preparing a gluten-free menu is easy when you prepare gluten-free casseroles. The rice-based pasta costs the most, but with meat or tuna, cheese, and vegetables, you’ll have enough to make a meal for several days. If you don’t know how, learn how to prepare fresh dried beans. They’re very economical, filling, and packed with gut-healing fiber.
- Homemade Stock. If a recipe calls for chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, you could purchase a high-priced gluten-free version – or, you can make your own stock, freeze it, and save a bunch of money.
Avoiding Gluten Cross-Contamination
When one person in your family needs to be on a gluten-free diet, it’s important to remember to avoid cross-contamination. This occurs when bits and pieces of foods containing gluten come in contact with gluten-free items. This often occurs when one family member uses a knife filled with bread crumbs on a stick of butter.
If a person has celiac disease, even a minute amount of gluten can destroy the intestines and produce symptoms. And even if symptoms are not noticed, gluten can still do lasting damage and create health problems down the line.
If you require a gluten-free diet, educate your family members about cross-contamination. Let them know they need to be especially careful regarding condiments. If possible, use entirely separate condiments, and invest in a toaster oven to be used only for gluten-free bread products. People with celiac disease cannot use a pop-up toaster that has previously toasted wheat bread.
A gluten-free diet isn’t just for people with celiac disease or dermatitis. Many people try a gluten-free diet or cut back on the gluten they ingest just because they want more energy, less joint pain, and less inflammation. One hundred years ago, human beings dined primarily on organic meat, chicken, vegetables, nuts, and fruit. The introduction of processed wheat as a bulk food is recent, and with it came the rise of gluten intolerance. Coincidence? Probably not.
If you decide you want to try a gluten-free diet just to see if you feel healthier on it, consult a dietician or your doctor first to get a second opinion. Engaging in a gluten-free diet is a life-changing experience. It takes commitment, education, and a lot of patience, but the health benefits can make it worth it.
Do you or your children follow a gluten-free diet? What do you do to keep costs down?