No, not that F-word! Fiber!
Going gluten-free means cutting out a lot of foods, and with them, some very important nutrients. (See also: is gluten-free right for you?) One of these nutrients is fiber. Since a fiber-rich diet is arguably one of the best steps you can take toward improved health, that’s kind of a big deal. Eating enough fiber helps with digestion, cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, reflux, diverticulosis, and even immune health.
With many whole grains off the table when we’re talking gluten-free, we’re going to have to get a little creative. Fortunately, it’s actually a lot easier to keep your fiber up on a gluten-free diet than you might think.
The easiest change to make is to simply start reading labels on the products you already buy, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch since you’re probably already scrutinizing most labels. There are gluten-free products out there that actually have very high levels of fiber in them, you just have to know where to look.
The average woman needs 20-25 grams of fiber per day, while the average man needs 30-38, so you’re looking for a solid 7-10 grams per meal. Five grams is a bit of an over-generalized blanket recommendation for all products, since it will vary based on what else you plan to eat with it and what your individual needs may be, but it’s a solid place to start.
Oh, and check the ingredient list, too; if you see ingredients like “cellulose” or “inulin,” that means the company has added fiber and the product wouldn’t naturally be a good source without them. These added fibers have not been studied enough to know if they offer the same health benefits as naturally occurring ones.
Ultimately, though, products designed to mimic much-loved gluten-containing foods are not the most nutritious choices as diet staples. They’re great for making the transition to a gluten-free diet, and on occasion when you just have a hankering for a sandwich or slice of pizza. The rest of the time, the healthiest options are what we call “naturally gluten-free,” and they are easily the most nutritious sources of fiber for anyone, gluten-free diet or not.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. Did you know that 90% of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables? That’s basically everyone, and these nutritional powerhouses are amazing sources of fiber. Berries, cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and cabbage), squash, green peas, and dark, leafy greens are particularly high. Stir a full cup of berries into your yogurt in the morning; chop up an apple into a big, spinach salad for lunch; snack on kale chips; or roast up some broccoli and cauliflower for dinner.
NUTS AND SEEDS. Keep a handful of almonds on-hand for easy snacking; make a trail mix with sunflower seeds, dried fruit and air-popped popcorn; use walnuts instead of croutons for a crunchy salad topper; and find any excuse to add fiber-rich chia seeds into your day. Just be wary of cross-contamination! Always read labels carefully and definitely shy away from the bulk bins. Oh, and stick with the seeds if you have a nut allergy.
BEANS, BEANS, THEY’RE…really high in fiber, too. Like, really, really high. Buy chickpea flour for baking and cooking, make a three bean salad and add lots of veggies, roast some chickpeas for a protein- and fiber-rich snack, or puree some white or black beans into brownies if you’re feeling extra-bold. One of my favorite sneakily-healthy desserts is a sweet twist on hummus; it’s great with apple slices (or, you know, a big spoon)!
GLUTEN-FREE WHOLE GRAINS. Wheat, barley, and rye are not the only whole grains in town, nor are they the most exciting. Pick up a bag of certified gluten-free oats, or explore “new” ancient grains like quinoa, black rice (one of my favorites!), buckwheat, corn, and teff. Most grains can be made in advance and stored for a few days in the fridge, so cook up one big batch and have them on-hand for easy meals throughout the week.
Remember, fiber is crazy-awesome, but part of what makes it so great is the fact that the body doesn’t properly digest it. If you go too gung-ho on the fiber all at once, your body will likely revolt in the form of bloating, cramps, and constipation. Not fun. Start slow and drink lots of water as you go, and you should be just fine.
Gluten-free, like many restrictive diets, does put you at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies, but only if you’re not careful. A little bit of planning and a revamped grocery list are all you need to stay on track. Happy shopping!