gluten free foodsGluten free is here to stay. The oft-cited statistic of 1 in 133 Americans with celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder) still represents only a fraction of those who fall somewhere on the gluten-sensitivity spectrum. Scientists at the Center for Celiac Research estimate that at least 6 percent of Americans, or 18 million people, suffer from some kind of gluten intolerance, with possible symptoms ranging from migraines and joint pain to skin rashes, fibromyalgia, and infertility (you can even have a gluten intolerance and never experience digestive upset).

It’s not surprising that gluten-free food sales reached $3.2 billion in 2009, up 10 percent over 2008, according to Nutrition Business Journal. And given the fact that more than 90 percent of people with gluten sensitivity remain undiagnosed, it’s clear that the gluten-free “trend” is just getting started. But is it a healthy diet? That depends on your food choices.

Easy, healthy gluten-free

When newly diagnosed, your first reaction might be simply to replace foods like muffins, bagels, and pizza with their gluten-free counterparts. But that’s not a recipe for sound, long-term nutrition. “People often automatically go toward the more processed, packaged gluten-free foods” that substitute white-rice flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, or corn for wheat (and increase sugar and salt to make up for the taste), says Rachel Begun, RD, dietitian and blogger at glutenfreerd.net.

Instead, “the majority of your diet, if you want to eat healthy, should be foods that are naturally gluten-free, the foods I would recommend for anybody: fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, low-fat dairy, beans, seeds, and nuts,” says Begun. Nutrient-dense foods like strawberries, pomegranates, kale, quinoa, beans, salmon, bell peppers, sunflower seeds, and many more are delicious gluten-free standbys.

Remember to drink lots of water, too, to help your body process all that good fiber. “When you have had undiagnosed celiac disease for many years, it’s likely that your intestinal villi are flattened,” says Alice Bast of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Consequently, your gut’s absorption is compromised. Absorbing lactose is the most difficult, she says, but eating a lot of raw vegetables may also cause upset because the body is still in digestive distress. So hydrate well to facilitate healing.

What about bread?

White foods aren’t good for anyone; and to compound the problem, unlike traditional baked goods, most gluten-free versions are not fortified with B vitamins and iron. (Begun predicts that fortified options are the “next wave of gluten-free foods.”)gluten free seal

So get smart about reading food labels. When you’re craving something processed that would traditionally contain gluten, such as bread, cereal, or pasta, look on lists for increasingly available and wonderfully healthy gluten-free whole grains, including quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, and amaranth. Smart gluten-free food manufacturers are including these ingredients to boost their products’ nutritional worthiness. 

In the kitchen

When baking gluten free, it’s tempting to start out with white-rice and potato flours, but these are stripped of protein and fiber. Want to make gluten-free goodies that taste good and are good for you? Check out protein-rich almond and chestnut flours, subtly sweet and fiber-intense coconut flour, bread-worthy buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa, and teff flours, as well as certified-gluten-free oat flour.

Gluten-free pastry chefs and manufacturers have concocted their own nutrient-rich flour blends; some even use more nutritious ground flaxseed and chia instead of xanthan or guar gum (which cause stomach upset in some people) for binding and texture. “Use the flours for baking and the seed forms of these whole grains for side dishes, salads, to sprinkle on top of foods, or as a coating for fish and chicken,” says Begun. Keep a container of cooked quinoa or brown rice in the fridge to add to salads, casseroles, and breakfast bowls.

A world of gluten-free foods

Again, focus on the glorious bounty of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruits. Caramelized squash with coconut, kale sautéed with garlic, figs stuffed with lavender goat cheese, roasted cauliflower, avocados mashed with cilantro and lime juice: all delicious, bursting with nutrients, and gluten free. Like anyone who celebrates cooking plant foods at home, you’ll feel better than you’ve ever felt.

“The one thing I try to impress upon everybody is, yes, there are restrictions to eating gluten free and yes, there is a learning curve, but look at it as an opportunity to see all that is out there,” says Begun. “Use the diagnosis to learn more about food and cooking, and to expand your food base.” It’s simple: Don’t just focus on gluten free; focus on health.