Navigating Gluten-Free on a Plant Based Diet

Updated: May 30

Wheat has been a significant form of sustenance for humankind since it was first cultivated as a food crop over 12,000 years ago. Birthday cake, mac and ‘cheeze’, or a classic PB&J are simple pleasures for many of us but can be a source of pain and discomfort for many others. For individuals with a wheat allergy, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), or celiac disease (CD), it is the latter.

Celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune disorder caused by sensitivity to gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat and certain cereal grains, resulting in inflammation and flattening of the cells lining the small intestine, causing nutrient malabsorption. Other negative health outcomes include infertility, stunted growth, skin rashes, and anemia. The only current treatment of CD is the avoidance of gluten for life. Members in a shared household often collectively eliminate gluten, irrespective of whether they have the condition, as any trace of it can trigger negative outcomes for individuals with the disease.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a sensitivity to gluten, wherein consumption of gluten results in bloating, diarrhea, flatulence, stomach pain, and/or even non-gastrointestinal symptoms such as headaches and joint pain. While individuals with NCGS can exhibit symptoms of great severity, they are not susceptible to intestinal damage as is the case with CD.

Avoiding gluten may have seemed like a treacherous endeavor up until even just a few years ago, but today’s food industry caters to many different diets, allergies, and sensitivities. Finding nutrient-dense options on a plant-based, gluten-free diet no longer has to be an excruciating task.

1. Focus on whole-food sources.

If you look at the ingredient label of many highly processed plant-based items such as vegan meat alternatives, veggie-based cheeses and spreads, dressings, condiments, and packaged snacks, you will likely find gluten when it is not necessarily expected. Gluten is used to provide texture and contribute to the consistency of many foods. If you prioritize buying minimally processed foods, not only will you avoid a lot of unnecessary filler ingredients, including gluten, but you will likely be nourishing your body with more nutrient-dense options. Options include gluten-free whole grains such as amaranth, teff, millet, buckwheat (not a wheat product, despite its name!), quinoa, rice, and gluten-free oats. Of course, there are other whole food options that are naturally gluten-free like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.

2. Look for the GF label.