Learn how to improve your health, reduce inflammation, and fight chronic disease with these tips for starting a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.
The terms “gluten-free” and “dairy free” seem to be everywhere lately. Many people go gluten-free and dairy-free to help manage chronic disease, food sensitivities, and inflammation. Both gluten and dairy are common allergens and and can cause issues in many people. But, what are the best ways to get started on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet?
What is gluten?
First off, let’s review what gluten is and how it can be a problem for some people. Gluten is a type of protein known as a prolamin found in the endosperm of grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is the “glue” that holds baked-goods together and is best known for its stretchy quality.
What is dairy?
Dairy refers to the milk produced by mammals, such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and even camel’s milk. The most allergenic and most common and frequently consumed type of milk in the United States and Canada is cow’s milk. Dairy can be found in a vast array of products, including milk, cream, yogurt, kefir, cheese, and butter. Eggs are not considered dairy foods, although they are often found in the dairy section of the grocery store.
Note: while ghee is often used as a substitute for butter, but it can still be inflammatory for people who have a strong sensitivity or allergy to dairy products.
Why are gluten and dairy considered inflammatory foods?
Gluten is considered an inflammatory food for a few reasons. First, gluten contains high levels of anti-nutrients, which are proteins found on some plants that can bind with and interfere with the absorption and digestion of nutrients in your gut, causing inflammation.
Release of Zonulin
Second, consumption and digestion of gluten prompts the release of zonulin in the body. Zonulin is a protein that controls the opening and closing of junctions in your gut lining–in fact, it’s the only known protein that does so. Our guts are meant to have selective permeability through those junctions–letting good things out into our bloodstream and keeping bad things in your gut for removal.
Research has found that the release of zonulin takes over our natural selective permeability and opens those tight junctions regardless of what should be allowed in your bloodstream. This includes partially digested food particles–which, when in your bloodstream, are perceived as harmful foreign invaders. This prompts an immune response in your body, leading to inflammation.
Gluten consumption is a personal choice and you do not need a medical reason to avoid it. However, you may choose to avoid gluten to help manage the following conditions:
1. Celiac Disease
Individuals with Celiac Disease are unable to digest gluten and its consumption leads to intestinal damage. Those with Celiac should avoid gluten to avoid further intestinal damage.
2. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Those with a gluten sensitivity experience many, if not all, of the same symptoms as those with Celiac. However, gluten sensitivity is not characterized by an immune response or IgE response, differentiating it from Celiac Disease and wheat allergies. Those with gluten sensitivity may choose to avoid gluten as symptom management.
3. Wheat allergy
Those with a wheat allergy have a reaction to various proteins present in wheat, but may be fine with gluten from non-wheat sources. Some people who have a wheat allergy can also have a gluten-sensitivity or Celiac Disease so it may be helpful to avoid gluten altogether.
4. Autoimmune disease
There are over a hundred different autoimmune conditions, and we are still discovering and labeling more. Going gluten-free may help those with autoimmune conditions manage symptoms by reducing inflammation.
Learn more about the reasons to consider going gluten-free in this article.
How Dairy is Inflammatory
Dairy is another allergenic food that is difficult to digest, therefore causing inflammation. Dairy contains proteins and sugars that require specific enzymes for digestion.
Lactose, the sugar found in milk, requires the enzyme lactase for digestion. This enzyme is produced in early childhood, but we lose production ability as we age. Roughly 65% of adults worldwide are lactose-intolerant due to a lack of lactase production. Dairy also contains casein, a protein similar to gluten that causes compromised digestion and immune system function (particularly A1 casein).
It is important to note that if A1 casein and lactose are causing digestive issues, there are other dairy alternatives. Milk from Jersey and Guernsey cows doesn’t contain A1 casein, and goat’s milk has less lactose than cow’s milk. However, you may wish to go completely dairy-free for a while and determine how you feel. Those with the following conditions may find relief from a completely dairy-free diet:
1. Lactose intolerance
This is a very common condition in which there is a lack of or a reduction in lactase production. Since lactase is required to digest lactose, individuals with lactose intolerance will be unable to digest lactose-containing milk and milk products.
2. Milk allergy
Not to be confused with lactose intolerance, a milk allergy is an allergy to the casein present in milk. Individuals with a milk allergy should avoid all forms of dairy.
If you suffer from acne, going dairy-free may bring some relief. Dairy is a food with a high hormone content and can influence your body’s natural hormonal balance. In addition, the inflammation caused by dairy can lead to more skin inflammation.
4. Chronic sinusitis
A milk allergy has been linked to chronic sinusitis and nasal polyps. If you experience recurring sinus infections with no other known cause, dairy may be the culprit.
5. Blood sugar issues
Dairy is insulinogenic, meaning it raises insulin levels. This is due to the lactose present in dairy. This can cause issues with the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.
6. PCOS and other hormonal imbalances
Dairy contains a high level of hormones and contains estrogen from the cow. Dairy also raises insulin levels. For both of these reasons, dairy may be best to avoid if you have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) or other hormonal imbalances such as estrogen dominance.
Learn more about the health reasons to go dairy-free in this article.
What foods are gluten and dairy-free?
There is no need to feel restricted by going gluten-free or dairy-free! There is still an abundance of food you can eat. You can easily avoid gluten and dairy by sticking to a whole foods diet. Stick to eating real foods and consume as little processed food as possible. If you do choose processed products, be sure to double check ingredient labels to make sure there is not gluten or dairy.
Tip: avoid items with ingredients such as ‘flavoring’ or ‘natural flavors,’ which may be hiding dairy or gluten. Here are other unexpected labels for gluten.
On the contrary, here are some examples of naturally gluten and dairy-free whole foods:
- Vegetables and fruits
- Meat, poultry, and seafood
- Legumes and grains (stay away from barley, rye, and wheat, and be careful of cross-contamination)
- Nuts and seeds
Getting Started with a Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free Diet
How do I eliminate gluten and dairy from my diet?
The first step to eliminating gluten and dairy is to educate yourself on their effects and where they’re most commonly found. Once you’re aware of where gluten and dairy may be hiding in food, you can make more informed choices at the store and at the restaurant.
Stick to a whole foods diet naturally free of dairy and gluten. If you choose to purchase processed foods, be very mindful of ingredient labels and contamination warnings. Often, even if a product is gluten or dairy free, it may have been processed on the same equipment as gluten or dairy containing products. Get my clean eating food list here.
When eating out at restaurants, inform your waiter that you cannot consume dairy or gluten. Restaurants may cook certain foods in butter, or prepare foods on a surface covered in flour or even put flour into foods such as omelets, to make them more presentable. You cannot always trust seemingly gluten or dairy-free dishes so make sure to ask. To avoid contamination, communicate with your server and impress the importance of your restriction upon them. Remain firm–you can even ask them their specific processes for avoiding contamination. Many restaurants will even have gluten-free and dairy-free options!
Make sure you know your alternatives for gluten and dairy. It’s relatively easy now to find conforming recipes and substitutes for gluten and dairy. Here are some common swaps to get you started:
Replacements for wheat flour:
- Almond flour
- Rice flour
- Coconut flour
- Oat flour (be sure they are certified gluten free oats)
- Cassava flour
- Sweet potato flour
- Gluten-free all-purpose flour
- Quinoa flour
Replacements for milk:
- Nut Milk (Almond milk/cashew milk/hemp milk)
- Oat milk (again, make sure they’re gluten-free oats)
- Coconut milk
- Soy milk
What snacks are gluten-free and dairy-free?
Snacks don’t have to be processed, pre-packaged foods! Whole foods make quick, delicious, and cost effective snacks. Rather than reaching for snack packs or crackers, consider choosing:
- Fruit and nut butter
- Small sweet potato
If you do choose pre-packaged processed foods for a snack, be mindful of labels. You’ll begin to notice certain brands that are known for being gluten and dairy-free. Snacks labeled ‘vegan’ or ‘paleo’ are often safest, but be sure to always double check and weigh the risks of contamination for yourself.
So, how do I start a gluten-free and dairy-free diet?
When eliminating gluten and dairy from your diet, it’s smart to have an action plan in place. Consider purging your pantry and fridge of all dairy and gluten-containing products so you are not tempted. Work with a coach or nutritionist is a great way to gain a support system and educate yourself further.
There are plenty of resources online and in your community, too! Consider joining Facebook groups, forums, or organizing local groups dedicated to sharing tips for going gluten-free and dairy-free.
Get my free clean eating recipe list here!
As you learn more about going gluten-free and dairy-free, you can generally rely upon labels and store sections marked gluten and dairy-free. Be aware that there is a risk of contamination with all processed foods or bulk items.
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