There are many mistakes I see people make when they first start a gluten-free diet. As a dietitian who deeply cares about the success of my celiac patients, I wanted to share a few of the more common pitfalls people encounter when going gluten-free.
Mistake 1: A Gluten-Free Diet is NOT Harmless
The first gluten-free diet mistake I see people make is not getting screened for celiac disease before going gluten-free. This is a HUGE rookie mistake and for many, it might not matter, but for others, it might be a huge annoyance.
Why? Well to get tested for celiac disease, you need to be eating gluten. This is so the celiac autoimmune response is active and measurable.
If you go gluten-free without being screened for celiac disease, then celiac disease testing can be inaccurate. And this might not seem like a big deal until you realize you feel a lot better on a gluten-free diet and want to know if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which are two completely different conditions that look the same.
And the only way to know which one you have is to be tested for celiac – which again, you need to be eating gluten for.
So the first mistake to avoid on a gluten-free diet is not getting screened for celiac disease beforehand. If you need help getting screened, it’s a simple blood test that your doctor can order. There are also home test kits you can use too, like the ones from imaware.
Mistake 2: Gluten-Free Does NOT Automatically Mean Healthier
The second mistake I often see people make on a gluten-free diet is assuming that gluten-free food is healthier. What is and isn’t healthy is extremely subjective and individualized.
For someone with celiac disease, where gluten damages the small intestines, gluten-free food will always be healthier than gluten-filled food.
However, for someone who tolerates gluten well and does not have a gluten-related disorder, gluten-free may not be as beneficial as you think. You see following a gluten-free diet requires a careful balancing act as many nutrients aren’t as readily available as they are on a gluten-filled diet.
If you are living gluten-free you need to pay special attention to your sources of gluten-free fiber, gluten-free whole grains, b vitamins, iron, and more. This is because a gluten-free diet drastically changes your eating pattern so it’s something that requires careful consideration.
All in all, gluten-free does not automatically mean healthy. There’s a lot of nuance to it.
Mistake 3: Thinking You Need to Avoid ALL Grains
Another common gluten-free diet mistake I see people make is thinking that gluten-free means grain-free. A gluten-free diet is not a grain-free diet.
Many gluten-free grains can and should be enjoyed on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free grains like corn, teff, brown rice, and more.
In fact, whole grains are an important source of soluble fiber which helps support heart health, gut health, blood pressure, and more. They also have many micronutrients required to balance a gluten-free diet.
So a gluten-free diet does not mean a grain-free diet. It just means a diet free from gluten-containing grains and their gluten-containing derivatives. Gluten-free grains are 100% allowed.
This also means that grain-free does not equal gluten-free. A gluten-derived ingredient like malt extract is grain-free but can contain gluten.
Again, make sure you’re aware of the difference between grain-free and gluten-free diets. It’s important that when living gluten-free you’re balancing the diet properly (which includes gluten-free whole grains). Additionally, you mustn’t mistake grain-free for gluten-free as grain-free products can still harbor gluten.
Mistake 4: Mistaking Gluten as a Trigger When it’s REALLY Fructans
Another common gluten-free diet mistake is people mistaking gluten as their food trigger when they are really reacting to fructans. If you’re not familiar, fructans are what is known as a FODMAP (fermentable oligo, di, mono, and polysaccharides). Basically fermentable sugars.
For many people with IBS, FODMAPs can be a trigger for symptoms. And when people often think they are reacting to gluten they are actually reacting to the fermentable sugar fructan found in many gluten-containing grains like barley and wheat.
This is why some people who are gluten intolerant find they tolerate sourdough better. That’s because the fermentation process helps break down the fructan so it’s better digested. So really, they aren’t gluten intolerant, they just don’t tolerate fructans well.
This is another reason why screening for celiac before going gluten-free can be really helpful. Because if you never get screened for it, you’ll never know if you’re reacting because of gluten intolerance, IBS and a FODMAP reaction, or celiac.
Mistake 5: Not Buying Gluten-Free Oats
The last gluten-free diet mistake I’ll talk about today is people not buying gluten-free oats. Oats are a big point of confusion for people eating gluten-free.
That’s because while yes, oats are naturally gluten-free, they actually can still contain gluten. This is because cross-contact with gluten often occurs during growing and processing, making oats no longer gluten-free. Now not everyone who is eating gluten-free has to avoid cross-contact.
But if you have celiac disease then you absolutely need to avoid cross-contact. This is why again, getting screened for celiac before going gluten-free is important because if you don’t know if you have celiac, then you could be causing small intestinal damage while eating mostly gluten-free because you’re not buying gluten-free oats.
If you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity or another gluten-related disorder, then you may or may not need to buy gluten-free oats. It depends on your sensitivity and how you react.
Wherever you lie on the gluten-free spectrum, it’s important to pay attention to your oats. Either you need them to be gluten-free for celiac, or you need to keep this on your radar in case you need to adjust your oat sourcing to better support your symptom management for your gluten-related disorder.
Those are the 5 gluten-free diet mistakes I often see people make. In summary, make sure you’re getting tested for celiac disease before going gluten-free. Make sure you’re balancing a gluten-free diet for common nutrient gaps and you’re not mistaking a gluten-free diet for a grain-free diet.
Additionally, before cutting out gluten it may be helpful to meet with a dietitian to make sure you’re not reacting to fructans instead. And lastly, make sure that you pay attention to the gluten-free status of your oats.
Did any of these mistakes surprise you? Let us know in the comments! And stay safe out there!