How To Go Gluten-Free and Vegetarian

gluten-free vegetarian chopping veggies
There's plenty to eat when you're gluten-free and vegetarian. Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

Following a gluten-free vegetarian diet should be simple enough: you just need to avoid foods that contain 1) gluten, and 2) animal products. Right? But it's not quite as easy as it sounds.

First, while it's relatively (but not perfectly) straightforward to identify animal products on a food label, gluten ingredients aren't always as obvious. And both lists of ingredients to avoid are long — you could be in for several frustrating trips to the grocery store as you shop for something (anything!) you can eat.

Another reason: many foods aimed at vegetarians and vegans make use of protein sources that include gluten grain ingredients. This may be fine if you eat those grains (as many vegetarians and vegans do), but it doesn't work if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity and must avoid gluten, too.

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That's why I recommend starting out your gluten-free vegetarian diet with whole foods you cook yourself, and as you grow more confident, gradually adding in processed foods you know are safe. Here's a step-by-step blueprint for making this major change in your life:

1) Learn which foods contain gluten and which contain animal products.

Going gluten-free is more difficult than simply avoiding bread and pasta — you can find gluten in canned soups and spice mixes, for example. Even if you're sticking to a whole-foods-based diet, you'll still need to watch out for wheat, barley and rye in places you don't expect, under names you wouldn't suspect.

Meanwhile, it's somewhat easier to identify obvious animal-sourced ingredients, especially if you're sticking to a diet of mostly whole foods — just steer clear of the meat counter, and don't buy anything that lists something questionable. But if you're vegan or if you're also avoiding dairy (many people who eat gluten-free also avoid milk-based ingredients), it gets a bit more difficult.

Resources you need when you go shopping:

2) Clean out your kitchen.

It's pretty easy to slip into old habits when you're cooking, especially if you're in a rush ... and that's how you make mistakes. So you'll need to go through your kitchen and get rid of products that are not safe on your new gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet.

For example, did you know marshmallows contain gelatin, which is an animal product? And if you consume dairy, note that some ice creams (especially less-expensive or low-fat varieties) use wheat starch as an ingredient.

Using the lists above, go through every box, can and baggie in your kitchen and throw out, donate or re-gift everything you find with animal products or gluten in it. Here are some more resources:

3. Mind your gluten-free vegetarian nutrition.

Eliminating both gluten and animal products from your diet places a bunch of foods off-limits, especially some of the most common go-to vegetarian protein foods.

And as a result, you're at a higher-than-normal risk for nutritional deficits (not to mention for going hungry when your friends want to try that new restaurant down the street).

Therefore, you'll need to take more care than average to make sure you get the nutrition you need from your diet — especially protein, calcium, iron, vitamin D and certain B vitamins. Learn more:

4) Expand your horizons to processed gluten-free vegetarian and vegan foods.

Both the gluten-free and the vegetarian/vegan communities have seen an explosion of available processed foods over the past several years, and if you stroll the aisles of your local health food store or Whole Foods, you'll see dozens of choices.

Just be sure when you pick up a new product to double-check the label for hidden gluten and hidden animal products. In addition, if you've gone gluten-free because you react badly to gluten, you should learn about the potential for trace gluten in "gluten-free"-labeled products (the bottom line: even if it says "gluten-free," you may still react to it). Here's some more information:

5) Learn how to dine out and socialize as a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan.

When you're gluten-free for health reasons, it's not enough to simply avoid gluten-y sounding dishes and to stick with vegetarian-friendly vegetables or salads on a restaurant menu — you need to know exactly what goes into your food, since the kitchen crew may have re-used pasta water to steam that broccoli (yes, it happens).

Therefore, unless you live in a hip area that's known for its healthy restaurant choices, you're unfortunately likely to find yourself pretty limited when you visit eateries. Sadly, combining the gluten-free diet with vegetarian or vegan food choices places you firmly in the "green salad with baked potato, no dressing or butter" camp in many restaurants.

In addition, it will be difficult for your friends to cook for you ... and if I were you, I would ask them please to not try.

Still, there's no reason to think you need to sit there sipping water while the rest of the party enjoys a good meal. If you're going to a restaurant, call ahead and ask to speak to the manager — it's possible something could be fixed specially for you. Regardless of whether you're going to a restaurant or to a friend's home, you can bring your own food — just be discreet if you're in a restaurant, and bring enough to share if you're headed to a private party.

Here's some more on learning to be social when you must avoid gluten (and of course, it also can apply to avoiding animal ingredients in your foods):

The Bottom Line

Following a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet isn't an easy proposition, especially at first, but you shouldn't allow the steep learning curve to scare you off if you truly believe it would benefit your health. Ultimately, you'll learn how to manage it ... and you'll likely discover some new and interesting foods in the process.

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