You may be wondering about a gluten-free diet for many reasons. Maybe you were recently diagnosed with celiac disease. Or a classmate of your child’s can’t eat gluten. You may have noticed restaurant menu selections marked as gluten free or all the foods in natural food stores that are labeled gluten free. Whatever the reason, you want to know, “what exactly is a gluten-free diet?”

A gluten-free diet does not include the grains wheat, barley, rye, or hybrids of these grains. This includes all varieties and forms of these grains, such as spelt (a type of wheat) and malt (made from barley).

A gluten-free diet is called a gluten-free diet because the grains that must be avoided all contain a protein called gluten.

Most people who follow a gluten-free diet have celiac disease, a serious genetically-based autoimmune disease. When gluten is eaten by a person with celiac disease it triggers an immune system reaction that damages the lining of the small intestine. When the lining of the small intestine is damaged, nutrients can not be properly absorbed. Once gluten is completely removed from the diet the intestine is able to heal.

What About Bread and Pizza?

You may be thinking that no gluten means no bread, no pasta, and no pizza. It is true that most of these products in regular grocery stores contain gluten, but there are plenty of gluten-free options available. As you may have noticed perusing the aisles of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or any other natural food store, there are plenty of breads, pastas, breakfast cereals, and other products labeled gluten free.

There is also an abundance of grains that just happen to be gluten free including rice, corn, millet, sorghum, wild rice, teff, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth. It would not be surprising if many of these grains are not familiar to you.

You might not know what teff is but you may have eaten it, especially if you have ever been to a restaurant that serves Ethiopian food. Teff is a staple grain in Ethiopia where it is used to make a spongy flatbread called injera. What about quinoa (pronounced keen-wa)? It sounds exotic but it is as simple to cook as rice and has a very mild taste — even picky eaters will love it. The same is true for all the gluten-free whole grains—they are delicious, nutritious and easy to cook.

When shopping locally for gluten-free foods you will have the best luck at natural foods stores, although an increasing number of gluten-free foods are carried in regular grocery stores. If you do not live near a natural foods store, there are plenty of mail-order companies. Among the many companies to check out are Enjoy Life Foods (enjoylifefoods.com), Bob’s Red Mill (bobsredmill.com), and the Teff Company (teffco.com).

Whether or not you or a family member has to follow a gluten-free diet, you might want to try some of the gluten-free grains. Pick up a box of quinoa the next time you are in the grocery store. Preparation instructions are included on the box. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, order the teff flour and grain starter pack from the Teff Company. Recipes using teff flour and grain are available on their website. Happy eating gluten free!

Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

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So, what exactly is a gluten-free diet?