Just a few years ago, the word “gluten” was as foreign to most Americans as Vegemite. Now “gluten-free” has become as ubiquitous on food labels as “low-fat,” and bidding adieu to the protein — found in wheat, barley, spelt and rye — has become the dietary trend du jour and not just a hipster food craze. The gluten-free food and book industry has mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar machine as gluten has been blamed for everything from bloating to weight gain to brain fog to the last Bon Jovi album. But if you’re not careful, going gluten-free could pack on the pounds not melt them away. Here are some of the most common missteps when saying sayonara to gluten and the necessary tactics to avoid their pitfalls.
Pitfall 1: You Have No Game Plan
If you’re used to eating sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner, suddenly eradicating gluten from your diet can leave you with some big food gaps to fill in. Too many people jump into a gluten-free lifestyle without the proper knowledge about the necessary dietary substitutions needed to assure that they’re still meeting all their nutrient requirements. This is particularly important for active gals who have a need for greater amounts of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to support training.
Do this: If you’re considering axing gluten from your diet, it’s a good idea to sit down with a dietitian who is well-versed in the nuts and bolts of gluten-free eating. This individual will be able to instruct you on what gluten-free foods can be used as substitutes for your usual gluten-containing fare so that you’ll still be nailing your daily nutritional needs.
Pitfall 2: You Forget To Read Food Labels
Because of their association with a healthier lifestyle, many gluten-free packaged foods have a health halo surrounding them meaning that too many people assume they are nutritious choices and forget to read the nutritional fine print. But doing so can add inches to your dress size, not subtract them. That’s because many packaged gluten-free foods are sneaky smugglers of extra calories, processed carbs, sugar and poor-quality fats. A gluten-free cookie can easily pack in more sugar and calories than a traditional cookie, which doesn’t tout a gluten-free claim.
Do this: Don’t assume that gluten-free foods are nutritional saints. Practice sound shopping habits and carefully read food labels so you can identify items that have a surprisingly large calorie load or contain an ingredient list saturated with sweeteners and processed carbs. A recent Journal of Consumer Affairs study found that label readers where more likely to succeed at shedding the fat than those who simply dropped foods into their shopping carts.
Pitfall 3: You Eat Fewer Whole Grains
Whole grains — and their nutrient-dense, fiber-rich résumés — deserve to be a part of an active lifestyle. But if you end up swapping whole-wheat bread and whole-wheat pasta for their gluten-free counterparts made with nutrient-poor carbohydrates such as white rice flour, potato starch or cornstarch, you could easily end up with a gluten-fee diet containing fewer whole grains that makes you feel worse not better.
Do this: A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine linked eating whole grains to weight loss, so if you’re going to practice gluten-free living, learn to embrace the nutrient-packed whole grains that come naturally without gluten. These include quinoa, amaranth, teff, sorghum, buckwheat and millet. There are now plenty of food blogs and gluten-free cookbooks that can help you get the most out of these in the kitchen. Luckily, there is a new wave of gluten-free alternatives to crackers, cereals, breads and pasta on the market made with whole grains. Again, label reading is a must.
Pitfall 4: You Overlook Whole Foods
With a burgeoning number of grocery store aisles being devoted to packaged gluten-free foods, it can be easy to get caught up in the hype and overlook the foods from Mother Nature that are naturally gluten-free. A diet skewed towards packaged edibles and away from whole foods is hardly a nutritional upgrade.
Do this: If you’re going to ditch gluten, do so more naturally by loading up your shopping cart with fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken, lean meats, unsweetened dairy like yogurt, nuts, seeds and legumes – all foods naturally devoid of gluten and jam-packed with the nutrients and antioxidants an active body needs to look and perform its best. In other words, concentrate more of your time on the perimeter of the grocery store
Pitfall 5: You Forget To Save Your Pennies
The cost of gluten-free eating often gets overlooked. A loaf of gluten-free bread can easily cost you twice as much as a package of the regular stuff. With increased competition, the price of gluten-free foods is starting to come down, but they’re still often pricier than their gluten-containing counterparts and can put a big dent in your food budget.
Do this: Focus on eating gluten-free whole foods like berries and brown rice because they’re less expensive than a cart full of packaged gluten-free foods. And if you have a weakness for baked goods, learn to bake your own gluten-free muffins and cookies, which will surely save you some cash and probably end up being more nutritious compared to pre-made versions.
For a list of gluten-free foods you should keep on hand, check out Gluten-Free Pantry.
Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, nutrition writer and recipe developer. He is also the author of The Muffin Tin Chef and The No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook.