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How to thrive on a gluten-free vegan diet – Vegan Food and Living

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We guide you through the steps to take when dealing with the double dietary dilemma for those following a gluten-free vegan diet

It’s never been easier to follow a plant-based diet, but what happens when a second dietary requirement is added?

Removing gluten from the diet in addition to being vegan, whether it’s for personal preference or for health reasons, can sometimes feel daunting or overwhelming.

It needn’t be either, in fact it can be very abundant and enjoyable.

Discover the best ways to survive, and thrive, on a gluten-free vegan diet.

In this article:

What is a gluten-free diet?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

A gluten-free diet excludes all products made from these grains, including bread, pasta, pastries, cakes, biscuits and couscous.

Gluten is also found as an added ingredient in other products, including some gravies, stock cubes, soups, soy sauce, ready meals and even sweets and yoghurts.

Why go gluten-free?

Coeliac disease

One per cent of the population have an auto-immune disorder called coeliac disease.1

In this condition the gut mistakenly identifies gluten as a threat, triggering a cascading immune response.

The result is inflammation and damage to the lining of the small intestine, reducing its ability to absorb other nutrients like calcium and iron.

Symptoms including diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, and wind can occur within the gut, but it can also lead to symptoms such as fatigue, skin rashes and weight loss.

Some people do not experience symptoms when they eat gluten, despite being diagnosed with coeliac disease.

The only current treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life, which heals the gut and reduces the long-term complication risks, such as weakening bones, anaemia, infertility and potentially (but rarely) cancer of the small bowel.

Gluten intolerance or sensitivity

In recent years, the term ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ (NCGS), has been coined, referring to those who experience symptoms when they eat gluten, but who test negative for coeliac disease.

There are several theories for this, including poor underlying gut health or an increased intake of the fermentable carbohydrate (known as fructan) found in wheat.2

If you have concerns over whether you are reacting to gluten, visit your doctor or dietitian to determine the right course of action for you.

With both coeliac disease and NCGS, be sure to avoid cross-contamination from things like shared utensils and chopping boards, as even one crumb can trigger a reaction to gluten.

Personal preference

Many people avoid gluten simply because they feel better when they don’t eat it, but it is important to talk to a healthcare professional to ensure a balanced diet is maintained.

Gluten is not inherently ‘bad’, and is found in many health-promoting whole grains that are a valuable source of fibre and micronutrients.

These grains are a key part of some of the healthiest diets in the world. Whole grains have been shown to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases that are so common in the Western world, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.3

However, gluten is also found in many highly processed foods, such as biscuits and pies with added fat, sugar and salt which, if relied on more heavily in the diet, can have a detrimental impact on health.

For some people who feel they react to gluten, simply improving the quality of their diet by choosing more whole foods and less refined foods is enough to resolve their symptoms.

Following a gluten-free diet may not be appropriate for everyone, but even if you don’t choose to remove gluten completely, it can be helpful to reduce your reliance on processed gluten-containing products and swap for healthier alternatives.

Top tips for starting a gluten-free vegan diet

Whether you’re new to a gluten-free diet, veganism, or both, these tips will help you to get started with your new lifestyle in a healthy, sustainable way.

  • Cook from scratch as often as possible so you know exactly what’s going into your food.
  • Focus on abundance and not restriction. There are plenty of things you can eat.
  • Include plenty of healthy whole foods, and enjoy processed gluten-free alternatives in moderation.
  • Get family and friends involved and organise cooking sessions with them.
  • Invest in a cookbook you love or a recipe app and compile your favourite ‘go-to’ dishes.

How to avoid gluten at home and away

You may already be well-practised at dodging animal-products and communicating about your vegan diet, but is it so easy to dodge gluten as well?

Or, if you’re new to being vegan, it could be hard to make others understand why you’re going plant-based when you’re already gluten-free.

Knowing how to communicate your needs, and navigate tricky situations is the key to avoiding gluten and animal products at home and away.

Explain your dietary needs to friends, family and colleagues

Being both gluten-free and vegan can be hard for some to comprehend, so try to help them understand your needs.

Most people will understand if your reasons and requirements are explained clearly, and will do their best to accommodate.

For those who find it more difficult to take on board, offer to cook with, or for, them to show them the kinds of foods you can eat, and the care you need to take over its preparation.

Cross-contamination

Educating others on your dietary needs is imperative when it comes to cross-contamination.

Having a separate area to prepare your food and using different utensils is a necessity, especially if you are coeliac.

Eating out

A lot of restaurants are well-versed in offering vegan or gluten-free options and may even offer separate menus, but it can be a challenge to combine the two.

When you eat out, be confident about asking for foods that suit your needs, look at the menu online, call the restaurant in advance or plan to go to a specific restaurant that has more choices for you.

Larger restaurants are likely to have a clear cross-contamination policy, but this is not a requirement, so be sure to ask ahead and double-check when ordering.

Know your food labels

You may be familiar with checking labels for non-vegan ingredients like milk or egg, but make sure you also check for other ingredients labelled in bold, such as wheat, barley and rye.

Wheat is a cheap, high yield product, so you’ll find it in various forms used as a filler in lots of processed products.

It can crop up in some surprising places, but as gluten is in the top 14 allergens, it has to be clearly labelled in bold on food packaging.

For a product to state that it’s ‘gluten-free’ on packaging, it has to be suitable for those with coeliac disease, which means it has to contain less than 20ppm (parts per million).

What can you eat on a gluten-free vegan diet?

Whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, herbs and spices are gluten-free and vegan, so can be eaten in abundance in their endless mouth-watering combinations, including spicy coconut dahls, hearty bean stews and sweet, creamy vegan desserts.

In fact, there are estimated to be in excess of 20,000 edible plants, so we don’t need to rely on the relatively small number of gluten-containing grains or animal products that have become such staples on a western diet.

It is important to continue to consume suitable whole grains and other healthy starchy carbohydrates while on a gluten-free diet.

These should make up around one quarter of our diet, as they are an important source of many nutrients, such as fibre, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, copper, magnesium, and compounds called phytochemicals.

Another quarter of our diets should be made up of high-protein foods that are required for tissue growth and repair, as well as to synthesise important molecules like enzymes and hormones.

Alongside carbohydrates and plant-based proteins, fill up on a range of colourful fruits and veg, with a few healthy fats from sources such as olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado.

You’re probably already be aware of your essential nutrition needs as a vegan, including calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine and selenium.

If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease more recently, your gut may still be healing and these nutrients become even more important; your dietitian should discuss these with you.

Cupboard staples for a gluten-free vegan diet

Your diet should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and refrigerated foods like tofu and soya milk are important for protein, too.

But it can be handy to have a stock of longer-lasting staples to hand for quick meals and impromptu cooking sessions.

These are some of the most essential foods to keep in your cupboard or pantry:

Starchy carbohydrates

Naturally gluten-free options include brown rice, buckwheat, millet, teff, amaranth, sorghum and quinoa.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes with the skin on are another good source of starchy carbohydrates.

Gluten-free oats are an option, but if you have coeliac disease, check with your dietitian as some people need to exclude them.

Plant-based proteins

Many healthy plant-based proteins are naturally gluten-free, including beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and soya foods like tempeh and tofu.

Keep a stock of these in your cupboard and you’ll always have ways to make a protein-rich meal.

You may also want to keep a stock of ready-made protein options in your freezer, but keep in mind that many plant-based meat alternatives contain gluten.

Check burger, sausage and even nut roast labels thoroughly for gluten-containing ingredients and cross-contamination warnings.

There are plenty of brands these days that are both vegan and gluten-free, but these may only be available in larger supermarkets or health food stores.

Gluten-free flours

There are a range of different gluten-free flours available, and varieties made from the grains mentioned above also provide starchy carbohydrates, even when used in breads and cakes.

Almond flour, chickpea and coconut flour are also amongst the many options available, along with some specially created blends designed to mimic plain or self-raising wheat flour.

These flours can make it easy to adapt your favourite vegan recipes to be gluten-free too.

But, keep in mind that gluten-free baking often requires more moisture than traditional recipes.

It can be tricky to get the balance right, leading to dry, tough bakes.

You may prefer to find new vegan and gluten-free recipes that are tried and tested without wheat flour.

Gluten-free bread and crackers

Supermarket gluten-free breads often contain egg to help bind the ingredients together in the absence of gluten.

They also tend to use lots of other ingredients to try and mimic gluten bread, such as stabilisers, gums and additives.

Look for vegan-friendly bread made with as few ingredients as possible or try making your own.

You can make gluten-free bread using alternative flours such as chickpea and buckwheat, or buy a mix such as Orgran or Rana’s Artisan Bakery.

Oat, rice or buckwheat crackers are good options for a quick, filling snack. You can make your own using alternative flour using a selection of seeds.

Gluten-free pasta

There are lots of delicious gluten-free and vegan pasta options, so there’s no need to miss your favourite pasta dish.

It’s best to stick to pasta found outside of the ‘free-from’ aisle, such as those made from chickpeas, lentils, brown rice, quinoa and mung beans, which are less processed and higher in protein.

Herbs, spices and seasonings

Both vegan and gluten-free diets have gained a bit of a reputation for being bland, but the truth is, they’re anything but!

There are so many seasonings that are suitable for a gluten-free and vegan diet, so keep your cupboard well-stocked with spices and experiment with flavour combinations to keep your dishes exciting.

Be aware that some seasonings may use wheat or dairy derivatives as a bulking agent, or could be at risk of cross contamination, so always check the labels.

Soy sauce is a common choice of seasoning in a lot of vegan recipes, but this contains wheat.

Tamari is a great gluten-free alternative to soy sauce to keep on hand, or you may be able to find gluten-free soy sauce in specialist stores.

Common concerns with a gluten-free vegan diet

Is a gluten-free vegan diet expensive?

If you fill your trolley with ‘free-from’ products, then these will raise the price of your weekly shopping bill.

If you fill your trolley with real, whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, then sometimes the cost is very reasonable and can even be lower than a ‘standard’ shop.

But don’t deny yourself trying out the latest gluten-free vegan supermarket products from time to time as a treat.

Some items, such as certified gluten-free oats, alternative flours such as buckwheat or gram flour, tofu and dairy-free yoghurt are a little more expensive, but are not a necessity and some of these can be bought in bulk or be made at home to keep the cost down.

Are gluten-free vegan foods unhealthy?

Many free-from alternatives to gluten-containing foods are classified as ‘ultra-processed foods’.

However, a gluten-free vegan diet doesn’t need to rely on these foods.

When we focus on whole foods instead, we gain nutrients that support long-term health and wellbeing.

When we look at health outcomes of whole versus processed foods, even when macronutrients such as protein, fat and carbohydrates are matched, we find that ‘ultra-processed’ foods are less satiating and are therefore eaten in excess.

Ultra-processed foods are also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and all-cause mortality.4

This isn’t to say we can’t enjoy the new vegan and gluten-free products hitting the market, but have them now and again, don’t rely on them daily.

Will I miss out on fibre by eating a gluten-free vegan diet?

Not necessarily – if you stick to a whole food diet, which means focusing on fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds as the mainstay of your diet.

Avoid refined and processed foods, especially gluten-free pastas and baked goods that are mostly made up of highly refined starches made from corn and potato and are low in fibre.

Gluten-containing grains, such as wheat, contain fibre, but fruits and veg, beans and pulses, as well as other gluten-free whole grains, such as oats and buckwheat, provide plenty of fibre.

Overall, there should be no essential nutrients you are missing out on by avoiding gluten-based products but, if you are unsure, consult a healthcare professional for advice.

How can you thrive on a gluten-free vegan diet?

Most of us do not need to avoid gluten, but for those of us who do, a little know-how is all we need to be totally gluten-free while continuing to follow a healthy and balanced vegan diet.

There are easy swaps we can make to ensure we’re still getting suitable whole grains and other healthy starchy carbohydrates, such as opting for buckwheat or sweet potatoes.

Many healthy plant-based proteins are naturally gluten-free, including beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and soya foods like tempeh, tofu and soya milk, so we only really need to take care to look out for gluten in processed vegan foods.

Although a gluten-free and vegan diet can take a little more work at the start, once you’ve found a favourite range of alternative ingredients, you will no longer feel restricted. You may even start enjoying a whole new world of delicious foods!

In need of a pick-me-up? Try this hearty gluten-free vegan pasta bake recipe

Featured photo © Art_Photo via Adobe Stock

References:

  1. 2023 COELIAC DISEASE KEY FACTS and STATS, Coeliac UK. Accessed via: coeliac.org.uk/document-library/6995-coeliac-disease-fact-sheet-2023
  2. Cárdenas-Torres FI, Cabrera-Chávez F, Figueroa-Salcido OG, Ontiveros N. 2021, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: An Update. Medicina (Kaunas). Accessed via: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8224613/
  3. Seal CJ, Brownlee IA. 2015, Whole-grain foods and chronic disease: evidence from epidemiological and intervention studies. Proc Nutr Soc. Accessed via: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26062574/
  4. Touvier M, da Costa Louzada ML, Mozaffarian D, Baker P, Juul F, Srour B. 2023, Ultra-processed foods and cardiometabolic health: public health policies to reduce consumption cannot wait. BMJ. Accessed via: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10561017/

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