Sometimes, it seems like gluten problems are blown out of proportion. As I highlight in far more detail in my new book Boundless (which launched this week!) I personally think that unless one has full-blown celiac disease, small amounts of gluten are just fine—and also believe that herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, excess stress, and other elements that can render the gut wall permeable to large gluten proteins are a BIGGER issue than the gluten itself.
But let's say you have leaky gut issues, or you don't have access to clean, glyphosate-free grain sources, or you know based on food allergy tests that gluten really is not something you should be eating right now. One of the problems with adopting a gluten-free lifestyle is that it can seem as if there are no great food options. Of course, there are common grocery store items like rice cakes and gluten-free breads, but these usually have little to no nutritional value, they spike your blood sugar dramatically, and can have a bland cardboard-esque taste.
Fact is, going gluten-free should not limit the variety of food you can include in your day-to-day diet, and it certainly should not limit the nutritional value of your meals.
So in today's article, I thought I'd share a list of my top 10 nutrient-dense, naturally gluten-free, foods that I always have handy in my home plus a list of foods that may seem healthy but actually contain hidden sources of gluten. Enjoy!
10 Naturally Gluten-Free Foods I Enjoy
1. Gluten-free Flours
I will often take meat I am cooking, dredge it in egg, then through gluten-free flour before cooking in a cast-iron skillet with grass-fed butter or extra virgin olive oil. I also like to use these types of flours as a thickener for recipes such as salmon cakes (here's a killer recipe for that). Many flours you can find at your local health-food store are gluten-free. Amaranth flour, almond flour, buckwheat flour, coconut flour, and brown rice flour are all excellent alternatives to glutinous grain flours for baking and using as thickening agents, but make sure to check the labels to ensure they weren’t processed in a facility that also processes glutinous grains. One of my favorite brands is Bob's Red Mill, and you can find several other good brands in the gluten-free flour section of Thrive Market here.
2. Hemp and Flaxseed Crackers
Many gluten-free crackers are thin and contain little more than rice flour and air. Hemp and flaxseed crackers contain high amounts of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids and beneficial phytochemicals like lignans. Hemp seeds also contain the amino acid arginine, which stimulates the production of nitric oxide and thus improves cardiovascular health. With a bit of my homemade wild plant pesto, these are the bomb.
3. Gluten-Free Wrap Alternatives
Instead of making your burrito with a whole-wheat tortilla or a nutritionally-lacking corn tortilla, you can use Nori wraps, coconut wraps, or cassava wraps. Nori is an edible seaweed traditionally eaten in Japan that can be eaten fresh or dried into sheets to make sushi wraps. I love to use these to wrap any of my brain-healthy SMASH diet food (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon or herring). Coconut wraps are exactly what they sound like—wraps made from coconut pulp. Cassava, otherwise known as yuca or Brazilian arrowroot, is the tuberous root of a tree found throughout the tropics. It has been used in traditional, tropical diets for centuries and can be used to make tortilla- or flatbread-style wraps. You can even find a recipe for making your own cassava wraps in Boundless.
4. Gluten-free Breads
Of course, there are many brands of gluten-free bread you can find at your local health food store. Udi’s, Schär and Glutino all make gluten-free breads, but not all gluten-free breads are equal. It is easy and cheap for food manufacturers to make a gluten-free bread that provides no more nutritional value than ordinary white bread, so look instead for gluten-free breads that are made with whole grains or so-called “ancient grains.” Try this recipe for a nutrient-dense, keto-friendly “primal” bread or check out my boys' GoGreenfields Podcast episode for a very tasty loaf of bread recipe made from nothing more than flax seed powder, salt, and water.
5. Fruits & Vegetables
Although often tainted with glyphosate, the vast majority of fruits and vegetables are gluten-free. The fruit and vegetable products that do contain gluten are contaminated either by processing on surfaces that gluten-containing foods have also been processed on or by having a glutinous additive put in the container—a common practice at restaurants. But the whole-produce section at your local grocery store will typically have fruits and veggies that contain little to no gluten at all. Dark leafy greens such as kale, brussels sprouts, and bok choy and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli are particularly nutrient-packed. Avocados are also a fruit and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, folate, magnesium and vitamins C, E, K, and B6. Other fruits that contain high amounts of vitamins and antioxidants (and that won’t significantly spike your blood sugar due to the fiber content) include figs, blueberries, cherries, grapefruit, stone fruits such as apples, pears, apricots, and peaches. I realize that plant-based antinutrients are a hot topic right now in the Paleo and Carnivore diet sectors, but when deactivated through the proper cooking methods I teach in my new book and avoided in large quantities, these antinutrients are not as a big of a villain as they've been painted to be.
6. Meat, Poultry, and Fish
Unless coated in marinades or rubs, most meat, poultry, and fish are usually gluten-free. Fresh cuts of beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, and fresh or canned fish make great additions to a gluten-free, nutrient-dense diet, especially if they are pasture-raised, grass-fed meats, and wild-caught fish.
7. Milk and Dairy Products
Unless we're talking about packaged and flavored varieties such as yogurts and kefirs, dairy is also gluten-free. The best sources of dairy are grass-fed animals that have not been raised with antibiotics and other chemicals. If you are sensitive to lactose, you can try consuming grass-fed goat milk and goat cheese. Camel’s milk and water buffalo milk, if you can find them, also tend to be very well-tolerated and dense sources of growth factors and proteins. These non-cattle milks and cheeses are more similar in protein structure and nutrient content to human milk than cow’s milk is, so they can be easier to digest.
In addition, there are different types of protein in milk: whey and casein. There are two types of casein: A1 and A2. Most cows’ milk available on grocery store shelves contains a combination of A1 and A2 casein proteins, but many people can only digest the A2 version, and often have an inflammatory or immune system response to the A1 version. Lactose intolerance or dairy allergies are often attributed to lactose or other proteins in the milk, but the A1 form of casein is often the culprit. Unfortunately, most cow’s milk in the USA is comprised of A1 and A2 protein. The a2 Milk Company of New Zealand has a good database of milk brands that are A1-free, and goat’s milk and camel’s milk are most often purely A2 protein.
A single egg yolk contains more than 90% of the RDA of 14 different nutrients and includes 100% of the RDA for vitamins A, D, E and K. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens contain twice the omega-3 fatty acid content of normal eggs, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene. One important factor to keep in mind is that if eggs are labeled “free-range” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the chickens ate that way. It just means that, like a high-security prisoner, they may have had access to a free-range diet while occasionally roaming in a fenced field, but spent the majority of their day in a dark, crowded barn locked in a cage. But eating eggs from free-range chickens does indeed increase your odds of consuming a broad nutritional profile while avoiding chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. For a deep dive into the wonderful world of eggs, I highly recommend the book Eat The Yolks by author Liz Wolfe.
9. Dark Chocolate
Cacao is naturally gluten-free. Many cacao-based dark chocolate bars found at health food stores are produced with minimal processing and contain no added gluten. Dark chocolate is also extremely high in antioxidants and healthy fatty acids. Always be sure to check labels for a gluten-free mention or, better yet, a gluten-free certification (which usually implies less than 20 parts per million) and read ingredients to look for hidden sources of gluten, such as wheat, barley, and rye (you’d be surprised!). Finally, not all chocolate is created equal: milk chocolate is usually full of excess sugar and dairy proteins, and many chocolates are also treated and heated to the point that their antioxidants are destroyed, or have many added fillers and ingredients. Make sure you get at least 72% organic dark chocolate with minimal ingredients. A few of my favorite brands include Eating Evolved, Hu Kitchen, HoneyMama and Go Raw.
10. Seeds, Nuts, and Legumes
Absent the notoriously popular coatings of vegetable oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and rancid palm oil—seeds, nuts, and legumes are a perfect nutrient-dense addition to a gluten-free diet. I personally prefer the incredibly nutrient-dense options such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, Brazil nuts, pili nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, and the wonderful peanut-cashewy flavored Baru nut—especially when combined into a trail mix with spirulina, chlorella and very dark chocolate with a pinch of coarse salt. Brazil nuts are particularly high in protein, monounsaturated fats, and other essential nutrients. When fermented to break down phytic acid, a phytochemical that can prevent the absorption of minerals and nutrients, legumes such as beans, nuts, peas, and lentils make an excellent low glycemic index addition to increase your protein and carbohydrate intake, which is perhaps why they figure so heavily into the Blue Zones diets.
Hidden Sources Of Gluten
In addition, as you begin to implement a gluten-free diet, it is crucial to be wary of foods that may seem healthy but actually contain hidden sources of gluten.
Many naturally gluten-free foods are treated, processed, and packaged to contain gluten, so it is critical to check labels before loading up on groceries.
These foods include:
- Canned fruits and vegetables, especially highly processed, sugary or dried products.
- Uncovered meats in the meat case in the butcher’s section at the grocery store (crumbs and glutinous products often fall in and cross-contaminate the meat).
- Highly processed nuts and seeds, like those found at gas stations and airports.
- Chocolate bars that contain wheat or wheat-containing products, especially foods like wafers or chocolate-coated sweets. Many chocolate bars are produced in facilities that also process other wheat-containing products.
- Nutrition, protein, energy or weight-loss bars, which often contain wheat or gluten as a binding agent.
- Canned soups or pre-packaged soup mixes, which often contain gluten as a thickener.
- So-called healthy popcorn snacks coated not only with gluten but also rancid vegetable oils.
Some foods do not contain any appreciable amount of gluten but are still recognized by some people’s immune systems as “being gluten” and trigger a similar food sensitivity reaction as if those people had consumed gluten.
What does that mean?
When your body develops an allergy to gluten, it creates antibodies that remember gluten's protein structure. If you then eat gluten, the antibodies set off an inflammatory response. But some other foods have similar protein structures to gluten, and you may react to those as if they were gluten.
The most common foods associated with this phenomenon of gluten cross-reactivity are:
- Dairy products, specifically the alpha-casein, beta-casein, casomorphin, butyrophilin and whey found in dairy.
As you can see, with all these hidden sources of gluten, following a gluten-free diet is not as clear-cut as it might seem. This list may seem limiting and nit-picky, but if you have gut issues, and you’ve gone gluten-free (and, for reasons I outline in my book, preferably FODMAP-free) and are still having symptoms, you may want to seriously consider limiting your intake of these compounds.
If you have eliminated the obvious sources of gluten in your diet and make sure the foods you do buy are gluten-free by checking labels, but you still experience adverse reactions associated with a gluten sensitivity, it may be worth doing an elimination diet with the cross-reactive foods just mentioned to see if your body is particularly sensitive to one or more of them. You can also test for gluten cross-reactivity with a gold-standard food allergy test such as the Cyrex Labs Array 3x and Array 4.
For more of a deep dive into food sensitivities and nutrition, Chapter 13: CLEAN GUT and Chapter 14: F&*K DIETS of Boundless both walk you through step-by-step how to heal your gut, optimize digestion, maximize nutrient absorption, and finally customize your nutrition to your unique situation.
What are your favorite naturally gluten-free foods? Leave your comments (or questions about gluten or Boundless below) and I'll get back to you!