What is a gluten-free vegan diet?

There’s a lot of talk about going gluten-free and vegetable nowadays. You’ve probably been targeted by ads for some sort of snack or meal delivery service that offers gluten-free vegan diet options — enough to make you wonder if there’s anything to just ditch stale bread and pasta. If random ads, influencers, and members of your monthly brunch group are excluding gluten, why not? In reality, there are legitimate medical reasons to eliminate gluten from your diet, but a gluten-free vegan diet may not benefit you unless you are one of those people. Let’s take a look at why someone should go gluten-free, what nutrients you might be missing, and what’s good to eat.


What is a gluten-free vegan diet?

If you follow a gluten-free vegan diet, you won’t eat anything that contains gluten or animal ingredients.

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, including wheat berries, farro, durum, semolina, spelt, einkorn, kamut, and wheat protein, which is used to make seitan and other plant-based meats. Gluten is like a stretchy binder that holds food together. Without it, the dough for pizza, bread, flour tortillas, pasta, and more would fall apart — though there are many gluten-free foods today that are nearly indistinguishable from their gluten-free counterparts.

Bread and pasta are the staple foods for many, but for the estimated 2 million people in the US with celiac disease, the gluten they contain triggers an immune response. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease in which eating gluten can lead to painful bloating, diarrhea or abdominal pain. Internally, gluten causes the body to attack the villi, the threadlike appendages in the small intestine that aid in the absorption of nutrients.

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

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

If you suspect you have a gluten intolerance, your health care provider may perform tests to confirm this, including testing for a wheat allergy and asking you to follow an elimination diet that avoids all gluten. If you have no medical reason to avoid gluten, excluding it from your diet provides no nutritional benefits.


Complications 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. But because this is a plant-based diet, it lacks vitamin B12, which is found in meat, eggs and dairy products. This important vitamin is essential for the formation of red blood cells and DNA and for the function and development of brain and nerve cells.

Vitamin B12 is added to some vegan products, such as fortified cereals, plant-based milks and nutritional yeast, but because this is not the standard, you may need to get your vitamin B12 from supplements.

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


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

Figuring out what’s good to eat on a gluten-free vegan diet is less complicated than understanding what falls under the keto or paleo umbrella. It may sound like going gluten-free is about cutting out carbs that give your body the energy it needs to navigate life, but there are plenty of high-carb foods that are just fine to eat.

All you need to do is avoid animal products and anything with gluten. It can be tricky to find certain things — say, a gluten-free vegan pizza you like — but it’s pretty unlimited, except in severe cases where you need to avoid foods that aren’t made in a dedicated gluten-free environment.

Alliums: Onions, garlic, shallots, chives, green onion, leek
Chili Peppers: Bird’s eye, Korean hot peppers, serranos, jalapeños, Kashmiri, Anaheim, poblano, Scotch bonnet, habanero, gochugaru, red pepper flakes, chili powder
Drinks: Coffee, tea, juice, kombucha, wine, most cider, coconut water, water
Fresh herbs: Basil, coriander, parsley, oregano, curry leaves, perilla, rosemary, thyme
Fruit: Apples, bananas, berries, melons, oranges, grapes, peaches, pears, lemon, lime
Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, edamame
Mushrooms: Button, portobello, shiitake, enoki, maitake, oyster, king oyster
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, linseed
Oils: Canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil
Vegetable proteins: Tofu, tempeh, gluten-free vegan meat
Tubers: Potatoes, yams, jicama
Vegan Cheese: Everything certified gluten free – most 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 grain: 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 soba, cereal, snacks, candy, and chocolate. Most vinegars, miso paste, tamari, and many sauces are gluten-free.

Look for anything that is certified gluten-free, meaning the product is made in a dedicated facility to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. This is safe for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance. Sometimes even naturally gluten-free foods can cause a reaction in humans if they’re produced on 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 otherwise there are no other major restrictions. Here’s a general list of what to avoid:

Animal products: Meat, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, honey
Drinks: Beer, ale, lager, stout, plus whiskey, bourbon, and gin made from wheat, barley, or rye
Grains and flour: Wheat berries, barley, farro, rye, spelt, flour, semolina, durum
Packaged Foods: Bread, bagels, pasta, wraps, cereal, frozen waffles, flour tortillas, pizza, pasta, ramen, udon, croutons, select vegan meats
Snacks: Pretzels, pita breads, 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 a product is completely free of trace gluten.

To learn more about vegan nutrition, read:
What is a raw vegan diet? Is it healthy?
A completely plant-based diet, explained
A Beginner’s Guide to Plant-Based Eating

Vote in the 2022 Best Vegan Ice Cream in America Awards.


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