When looking to make a healthy change in their diet, some people select gluten-free and sugar-free foods. Gluten-free foods are becoming more mainstream and are a necessity for some individuals. Sugar-free foods are also widely available, but many healthful foods, including fruit and yogurt, contain natural sugars, making this issue a bit confusing. Ultimately, reducing or avoiding sugary drinks, candy, desserts and other sweets and limiting or avoiding added sugars are more realistic goals, since avoiding all sugars isn't practical or necessary. Many nutritious and tasty foods are both gluten-free and do not contain added sugars.
Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley and foods made with these ingredients. Sugar is naturally present in fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt. Most people trying to avoid sugar still include whole, unprocessed foods with natural sugars and avoid added sugars -- such as honey, table sugar or corn syrup. Foods that are gluten-free and either do not contain any sugars or only contain natural sugars include:
-- All raw fruits, frozen fruit without added sugar and some no-sugar-added canned fruit.
-- Fresh or plain, frozen vegetables and most canned vegetables.
-- Animal protein such as eggs, beef, pork, and unbreaded poultry and fish.
-- Vegetable proteins such as legumes, nuts, seeds and most tofu.
-- Plain, unflavored dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese and butter.
-- Gluten-free grains such as quinoa, rice, corn, tapioca, millet and gluten-free oats.
-- Plain black coffee as well as some teas.
Avoiding gluten is a necessity for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease. According to an April 2015 article in the "United European Gastroenterology Journal," those suffering from celiac disease can experience harm to their gastrointestinal system when they eat gluten. In addition, some people who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten experience a wide range of symptoms including abdominal pain, joint and muscle pain, tiredness and depression.
Reducing the amount of added sugar in the diet is a wise diet strategy to avoid excess but empty calories while limiting foods with little nutrition benefit. Limiting sugar can help reduce calorie intake when trying to lose weight. People with diabetes benefit from curbing added sugars, but moderate amounts of sugar, preferably from nutritious foods that contain natural sugars, can fit into their carbohydrate targets.
When transitioning to a no-gluten diet, reading food labels is essential. Many foods, such as soy sauce, processed meats and soups, can contain traces of gluten, and the term "wheat-free" does not always equal "gluten-free." According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, in addition to avoiding obvious sources such as wheat, rye and barley, food ingredients such as malt, dextrin, modified food starch and brown rice syrup could all add traces of gluten to a product. It's important to understand how to eat well when avoiding gluten because many gluten-free breads and pastas are low in fiber, and many prepared and boxed gluten-free foods can be highly processed and contain unhealthy fillers such as sodium and trans fat.
Currently, there is no differentiation between natural and added sugars on a food label. By July 2018, all food labels will be more clear and list the amount of added sugars along with total sugars. Until then, to limit added sugars, check ingredient labels. Seemingly healthy foods such as packaged smoothies and granola bars may list sugar or corn syrup as the first or second ingredient -- indicating a high sugar content. Hidden sugars are also found in salad dressings, pasta sauces and canned fruit. Words ending in -ose and ingredients labeled as syrups can indicate added sugar as well.
Precautions and Next Steps
When you're considering a gluten-free diet or have concerns about celiac disease, speak with your doctor. Also, questions about diabetes or weight loss should be directed to a healthcare professional. When looking to switch to a gluten-free diet and one that is low in added sugars, speak with a registered dietitian to evaluate your current diet, make changes where appropriate and assist in meal planning. A dietitian can also provide education on the importance of dietary changes for certain conditions and provide tips for adherence.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH RD