How to Be a Gluten-free Vegetarian

Easy Ways to Follow a Double Diet

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

Becoming a vegetarian is one thing, going gluten-free is another—but both at once? Duel diets may sound daunting, and there definitely are some special challenges. For instance, while it's a relatively straightforward task to identify animal products on a food label, ingredients containing gluten aren't as obvious. Plus, you'll be grappling with a double list of foods and ingredients to avoid if you're going to stick to both sets of restrictions.

It's also worth noting that many foods marketed for vegetarians use protein sources that include grains that contain gluten. This adds another challenge if you're eliminating gluten in your diet for medical reasons—because you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity—and not simply because you want to see if steering clear of gluten will make a difference in your overall health. Even so, it's not that hard to navigate a gluten-free vegetarian diet. Here are some easy ways to get started.

Learn Which Foods Contain Gluten and Which Contain Animal Products

Going gluten-free is more complicated than simply avoiding bread and pasta. Gluten sneaks into a wide variety of foods, and many of them may surprise you. For example, some canned soups and spice mixes contain gluten. Even some ice creams (especially less-expensive or low-fat varieties) use wheat starch as an ingredient. And 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: Steer your grocery cart away from the meat counter, of course, and read labels carefully. If you've decided to follow a vegan diet, which means avoiding animal products in every form, note that even something like marshmallows may be off-limits: These contain gelatin, which is made by boiling skin, bones, and other animal parts.

Prep Your Kitchen

It can be easy to grab an ingredient that doesn't fit into your diet when you're cooking and in a rush. The best way to avoid doing this is to clear your kitchen of any and all foods that contain the ingredients you're avoiding. Pick a day to take stock of every box, bag, and can in your cupboards and fridge. Read the ingredients lists on each and set aside all products that aren't compatible with a vegetarian and gluten-free lifestyle.

If there are any family favorites you need to keep around for loved ones who aren't on board with your new diet, create a special place for those items so you don't have to think twice in order to avoid them when cooking for yourself. Everything else, as long as it hasn't expired, can be donated. Toss the rest in an environmentally appropriate way. In other words, recycle when possible.

Don't Short-change Nutrition

Because so many foods are off-limits on a diet that excludes both animal proteins and gluten, there are some nutrients you'll need to be especially careful to fit into your diet from other sources. These include protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and certain B vitamins. Do your dietary due diligence before you change up your eating style: Find out how much of each of these nutrients you need based on your age and lifestyle to be healthy and make a list of foods that will provide you with the recommended daily allowance of each.

Even better, consult with a nutritionist to help you iron out these details. And it goes without saying that before you make any major changes to your diet, check with your doctor to make sure it's safe for you to do so. As for supplements, it's always better to get as many nutrients from food as possible, so ask your doctor or nutritionist before you stock up on vitamin pills or other non-food nutritional supplements.

Be Picky About Processed Products

The explosion of interest in both gluten-free and vegetarian lifestyles has led to a proliferation of pre-packaged and processed foods designed for both types of diets.

Be aware that not all gluten-free products are compatible with a vegetarian diet and not all vegetarian (or even vegan) products are compatible with a gluten-free diet. So when you're shopping, read labels carefully to check for not-so-obvious gluten and animal ingredients. This is especially important if you react badly to gluten: Even if a label says "gluten free" a food may have some trace amounts of gluten.

Don't Let Your Diet Restrict Your Social Life

Yes, eliminating gluten and animal protein (and dairy, if you're going that far), is likely to make it tough to navigate a restaurant menu or potluck dinner party. Tough, but not impossible. Here are some tips for eating out when you're avoiding gluten and animal products that will allow you to follow your diet without missing out on delicious food or time with friends.

  • Learn ways gluten can sneak into a dish. For example, in some restaurant kitchens the same water used to boil pasta may be reused to steam veggies. Don't hesitate to ask your server about such potential sources of gluten in foods. He'll be happy to check with the chef.
  • Do your homework. Before you visit a restaurant, call ahead to find out which menu items will be in sync with your diet. That way you won't need to feel self-conscious about taking longer to order because you're trying to suss out the selections. You also won't have to feel self-conscious about quizzing the server.
  • BYOF. If you'll be dining at a friends' home, ask what you can contribute to the menu. This will be trickier if your host is serving a sit-down dinner rather than having a potluck or barbecue. In any case, don't expect your friend to cook something special for you. Instead, bring your own food—and be sure to prep enough to share.

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