What is a Gluten-Free Vegan Diet?

There is a lot of talk about going gluten-free and plant-based these days. Perhaps you’ve been the target of an ad for some type of snack or meal delivery service offering gluten-free vegan diet options – which will make you wonder if there’s something to cut out from the usual bread and pasta. If random ads, influencers, and members of your monthly brunch group are cutting out gluten, why shouldn’t you? In fact, there are legitimate medical reasons to eliminate gluten from your diet, but unless you are one of those people, a gluten-free vegan diet may not benefit you. Let’s explore why someone might need gluten-free foods, what foods you might be missing out on, and what you can eat.

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What is a gluten-free vegan diet?

If you follow a gluten-free vegan diet, then do not eat anything that contains gluten or animal ingredients.

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, which contains the wheat protein used to make wheat berries, farro, durum, semolina, grits, einkorn, Kamut, and seitan, and other plant-based meats. Gluten is like an elastic binder that holds foods together. Without it, the dough for pizza, bread, flour tortillas, pasta and more will fall apart – although these days there are many gluten-free foods that are almost indistinguishable from their gluten-free counterparts.

Bread and pasta are staples for many, but for the nearly 2 million people in the U.S. who have celiac disease, the gluten they contain triggers an immune response. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease where eating gluten can result in painful bloating, diarrhea or abdominal pain. Internally, gluten causes the body to attack the villi, string-like appendages in the small intestine that help absorb nutrients.

If left untreated, this condition can lead to an increased risk of other autoimmune diseases, such as coronary artery disease, small bowel cancer, iron deficiency anemia and type 1 diabetes, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. A lifelong gluten-free diet is the only known treatment plan for celiac disease.

Gluten can also be avoided due to gluten intolerance, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (NCGS). Eating gluten when you have NCGS can come with bloating and abdominal pain, but it’s less aggressive than celiac disease and doesn’t have the same long-term health effects. It’s not an allergy or autoimmune disease, and its exact causes are still unknown, but it affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population.

If you suspect you have a gluten intolerance, your doctor may do tests to confirm it, including testing you for a wheat allergy and asking you to follow an elimination diet where you avoid all gluten. Unless you have a medical reason to avoid gluten, cutting it out of your diet won’t offer you any nutritional benefits.

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Side effects of a gluten-free vegan diet

The good news is that if you have to avoid gluten, you won’t be depriving yourself of any essential nutrients. However, since this is a plant-based diet, it lacks the vitamin B12 found in meat, eggs, and dairy products. This essential vitamin is essential for the formation of red blood cells and DNA, as well as the function and development of brain and nerve cells.

Vitamin B12 is added to some vegan products, such as fortified cereals, plant-based milk, and nutritional yeast, but since this is not standard, you must get vitamin B12 from supplements.

It is recommended that you consult your doctor or dietitian before making any major changes to your diet.

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

Figuring out what’s right to eat on a gluten-free vegan diet is less complicated than figuring out what falls under the umbrella of keto or paleo. Going gluten-free may sound like cutting out carbohydrates, which provide your body with the energy it needs to run through life, but there are plenty of carb-friendly foods to eat.

What you need to do is avoid animal products and anything containing gluten. Certain things can be difficult to find—like the gluten-free vegan pizza you enjoy—but it’s fairly unrestricted except in extreme cases where you must avoid any food that isn’t prepared in a specific gluten-free environment.

Alliums: Onion, garlic, onion, dill, green onion, leek
Chili pepper: Bird’s eye, Korean chili, serranos, jalapeño, cashmere, Anaheim, poblano, scotch bonnet, habanero, red pepper flakes, chili powder
Drinks: Coffee, tea, juice, kombucha, wine, most juices, coconut water, water
Fresh herbs: Basil, cilantro, parsley, oregano, curry leaves, perilla, rosemary, thyme
Fruits: Apples, bananas, berries, melons, oranges, grapes, peaches, pears, lemons, limes
Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, edamame
Mushrooms: Button, portobello, shiitake, enoki, maitake, oyster, king oyster
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, macadamias, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds
Fats: Canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil
Plant-based proteins: Tofu, tempeh, gluten-free vegan meats
Tubers: Potato, yam, jicama
Vegan cheese: Certified gluten-free everything – most of it should be
Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, cabbage, leafy greens, sea vegetables
Whole and ground spices: Black pepper, cumin, coriander, allspice, turmeric, paprika, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg
Whole grains: Oats, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, corn, sorghum

Packaged gluten-free foods are also fair game. These include gluten-free bread, wraps, pizza, pasta, 100 percent buckwheat, cereal, snacks, candy and chocolate. Most vinegars, miso paste, tamari, and many sauces are gluten-free.

Look for anything certified gluten-free, meaning the product was made in a dedicated facility to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. It is safe for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance. Sometimes, even naturally gluten-free foods can cause reactions in people if they are produced in shared equipment with gluten-containing ingredients. For example, some oats are not considered gluten-free because of this.

What can’t you eat on a gluten-free vegan diet?

Gluten is quite common in foods, especially in restaurants, but other than that there are no major restrictions. A general list of things to avoid:

Animal products: Meat, dairy products, eggs, fish, shellfish, honey
Drinks: Beer, ale, lager, stout made from wheat, barley or rye, plus whiskey, bourbon and gin
Cereals and flours: Wheat berries, barley, farro, rye, crumbled, flour, semolina, hard
Packaged foods: Bread, bagels, pasta, wraps, cereals, frozen waffles, flour tortillas, pizza, pasta, ramen, udon, croutons, some vegan meats
Snacks: Bagels, pita chips, crackers, cookies
Sauces: Soy sauce, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, roux-based sauces

Remember: if you have celiac disease, NCGS or a wheat allergy, you should always read the ingredient list to make sure the product is completely free of traces of gluten.

For more information on vegan nutrition, read:
What is a raw vegan diet? Is it healthy?
The Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet, Explained
A Beginner’s Guide to Plant-Based Eating

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