April 30, 2013 at 12:26 PM ET
If you're considering giving up gluten, you're in some A-list company: These days, it seems like everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Miley Cyrus is talking publicly about giving up gluten (at least occasionally) for health reasons.
Experts say there's really no reason to cut gluten out of your diet if you don't have a sensitivity or outright intolerance. Still if you're among the roughly one-third of Americans trying to go gluten-free, here's what you need to know:
1. Read all about it. One of the biggest hurdles in gluten-free living is understanding what "gluten-free" really entails. It's not just about giving up bread! If you're thinking of going gluten-free—especially if you're making the change because of a health condition like celiac disease, which is a severe intolerance to gluten—it's important to educate yourself first.
2. Make a list of safe foods. Sadly, going on a gluten-free diet isn't as easy as cutting out wheat and pasta. "Gluten can be hidden in all sorts of things, including soy sauce, soups and sauces, so you need to learn the ingredients to watch out for," says Danna Korn, author of seven bestselling books on the gluten-free lifestyle and founder of R.O.C.K (Raising Our Celiac Kids). To start, check websites or books for gluten-free ingredients and then create a list of safe foods to eat.
3. Learn to identify hidden sources of gluten. Gluten can lurk in unexpected items, including malt, brewer's yeast and modified food starch, and even products like toothpaste and medication. Make it a habit to read the labels of everything to check for ingredients that may contain gluten.
4. Use gluten-free apps. If you have a smart phone or tablet, downloading an app can make gluten-free eating, cooking and shopping easier. Find Me Gluten Free for Android lets users search for restaurants and bars, scan product bar codes and browse popular gluten-free products. For iOS users, Is That Gluten Free? searches for safe foods by brand or category.
5. Overhaul your fridge and pantry. Read the labels of all the food in your fridge and pantry, and toss or give away anything that contains the offending protein. If you share your kitchen, develop a system for separating gluten and non-gluten foods.
6. Get cooking. The best way to ensure that the food you eat is 100 percent gluten-free is to make it yourself. Learn to love your kitchen, and check out some of the many cookbooks and websites that feature gluten-free recipes.
7. Be wary of contamination. Whether you're cooking at home or eating out, it's important that your food doesn't cross paths with gluten from other sources "Crumbs are enemy number-one," says Korn. "If you make a 'regular' sandwich and then a gluten-free one, it's important to wash hands, counters and utensils." When dining out, ask questions about the menu and dishes, and don’t be shy about asking for substitutions or alternatives. "Restaurants like to accommodate people," says Joe Kalal, a professional gluten-free baker in Portland, OR. "They don't want to make you sick."
8. Do restaurant reconnaissance. Before discovering that you can't eat a thing on a menu, call ahead or check online for restaurants that can accommodate gluten-free diners. Some restaurants that aren't strictly gluten-free still may have a reputation for being friendly to gluten-free diners. Surprisingly, many pizza parlors, including Uno Chicago Grill and zpizza, now off gluten-free crust. And ask fellow gluten-free eaters for their restaurant recommendations.
9. Look for gluten-free symbols or labels. As of this writing, there are no federal laws that regulate the labeling of gluten-free foods. However, three independent organizations have devised certification programs based on their own criteria, which include visits to facilities, periodic testing and limits on gluten. Look for certified gluten free or Celiac Sprue Association symbols on packaging. Note that certification may still allow trace amounts of gluten, so it's important to read ingredient lists, especially if you're extremely sensitive.
10. Familiarize yourself with gluten-free grains. Life without gluten doesn't mean carb-free eating. Surprisingly, safe grains outnumber those containing gluten. Get your fill of energy-rich carbs through corn, rice, certified gluten-free oats, quinoa, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and teff.
11. Look for gluten-free oats. If you're confused about oats, you're not alone. Oats naturally do not contain gluten, but most commercial oats are processed in facilities that can contaminate the grain. "People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity should only purchase pure or certified gluten-free oats," says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. One brand that makes them: Bob's Red Mill.
12. Learn which alcohol to avoid. Imbibing can be tricky when it comes to living gluten-free. "All beer containing wheat, rye, barley or ingredients containing them is off limits," says Begun. "Distilled alcohols are safe to drink, as the distillation process removes the proteins which can cause a reaction. Wine is naturally gluten-free. However, many wines aged in oak barrels are sealed with a gluten-containing paste. While the amount of gluten is minimal and results in less than 20 ppm [parts per million], the widely accepted safe threshold for most people with celiac disease, consumers should be aware of this practice." Luckily for beer lovers, there are gluten-free brews that are worth drinking.
13. Think outside the bun.Giving up gluten doesn't mean you have to say goodbye to your favorite sandwiches and wraps. You can still make handheld sandwiches and snacks with other foods, like lettuce, corn tortillas, gluten-free flat breads, nori and even rice paper.
14. Find substitutions. With the increased awareness and popularity of gluten-free living, there are now many products made from gluten-free grains that are actually pretty good, including gluten-free pastas, cereals and breads. Also, think creatively about how naturally gluten-free foods can be used. One tip: Add crunchy nuts instead of croutons to salads.
15. Eat real, unprocessed food. The more processed a food gets, the more likely it will contain gluten due to additives or contamination. A safe bet is to stick with foods that are closest to their most natural states. Think corn on the cob instead of corn chips. Bonus: these foods also contain more vitamins and minerals, as processing strips foods of nutrients.
16. Call customer service. If after reading a food label you're still in doubt, give customer service a call. Most companies welcome questions about their products and will supply you with toll-free phone numbers or email addresses. Check the product's packaging or website for contact information.
17. Do a taste test. Good news: With all of the gluten-free products now available in the marketplace today, you're likely to find lots of different choices when it comes to items like breads, crackers and pasta. So start taste-testing!
18. Find support. Nobody said that the gluten-free lifestyle was a cakewalk. Talking to like-minded people can help make the transition easier and reinforce the choice (or need) to go gluten free. Join meet-up groups or gluten-free eating clubs in your area or look for online communities. Who knows, you may pick up baking tips or get advice on products and brands!
19. Educate friends and family. Unlike many dieters who award themselves "cheat" days, people with serious gluten intolerances don't get freebies. For friends and family who think you can just have a slice of cake at a party or a bite of a sandwich, explain that gluten can actually make you sick. To make holidays, potlucks and family get-togethers easier, always offer to bring a gluten-free dish to share; it can help you start a conversation and ensure that you have something to eat!
20. Eat a well-rounded diet. "The gluten-free diet tends to be low in fiber, calcium, iron, and B-vitamins," says Begun. So make sure your diet contains lots of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, gluten-free whole grains, beans and lean protein, and avoid highly processed gluten-free foods. (Good advice for anyone, really!) Consider taking a gluten-free multivitamin, and if you're still concerned about your intake, make an appointment with a registered dietitian.
21. Plan ahead. Traveling? While you're certainly likely to find markets and restaurants that stock gluten-free items pretty much anywhere you go these days, it's always a good idea to think ahead. Korn recommends bringing your own favorite mixes if you'll be staying somewhere with a kitchen. And if you're going to a resort or on a cruise, "call ahead and talk with the executive chef."
22. Start small. As with any lifestyle change, going slow can help make the transition easier. Begin by having one gluten-free meal a day, then phase out the other meals over time. Try setting goals, whether it's meal-by-meal or day-to-day, and go at your own pace.
23. Get familiar with gluten-free baking. Giving up gluten means avoiding that kitchen staple, all-purpose flour. But there are still lots of options for bakers. Kalal suggests making flour mixes with protein (like brown rice, millet, amaranth, sorghum) and starch (potato starch, cornstarch, tapioca, arrowroot) flours. "An easy mix is two cups brown rice flour to one cup tapioca starch," he says. "You can use that for anything that calls for all-purpose flour." You can also buy certified gluten-free flour blends from brands such as Bob's Red Mill.
24. Embrace the lifestyle. Adapting to a new lifestyle may be difficult, but a shift in thinking can help. "The list of things you can eat is far longer than the list of things you can't," says Korn. "I encourage people to switch their perspective so they don't feel so deprived!" Occasional reflection can also help reinforce gluten-free living: Remind yourself that you're making changes for your health.
25. BYOGFF (Bring your own gluten-free foods!) It might sound awkward, but bringing your own food to a get-together ensures that you'll have something safe to eat. You don't need to bring a whole shopping cart worth of goodies, but pack enough for yourself. If you're going to a barbecue, bring your own gluten-free buns for the burgers or hot dogs.
26. Snack on fruits and veggies. Here's what you'll figure out—quickly—on a gluten-free diet: Those g-free snack foods, breads and mixes are pricey! So do your wallet a favor and stick to inexpensive fruits and veggies. Dip apple slices into nut butter or munch on baby carrots with gluten-free dressing.
27. Say thanks, but no thanks. Whether you're at a restaurant or party, don't take a chance on food you're unsure about. It's better to abstain from eating the most tempting looking food than to be sick for days.
28. Keep a food diary. When you're starting out on a gluten-free diet—especially if you're trying to determine whether or not you have a sensitivity—keeping a food diary can help. Simply take notes on your smart phone, and remember to record every bite you take and how you felt after eating.
29. Celebrating? Eat before you go out. When faced with social occasions like weddings or birthdays, you have a number of options. What isn't one of them: expecting others to accommodate your diet. So fill up before you go, or bring your own gluten-free snack. Alternatively, Korn says, "Talk to the host before you go to find out what's being served." And most importantly, don't stress too much about the grub. "It's about the celebration and socializing," Korn says, "not the food!"
30. Wash your hands. Yet another reason to make hand-washing a habit: Like germs, gluten can be spread through hands and cause illness in people who are especially sensitive. Washing your hands, as well as doorknobs and refrigerator door handles, can help eliminate the unwanted transfer of gluten.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.