For those who require a gluten-free diet – whether due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity – avoidance of gluten is of course an essential component of a healthy diet. But other aspects of diet are important too. General healthy eating guidelines still apply, and there are often additional considerations too, especially for those who have been recently diagnosed with celiac disease.
One of the cornerstones of a healthy diet is variety – both within and among different food groups. This means it’s important to include foods from diverse food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, meats, dairy, etc.) as well as different foods from within each group (a good reason to explore the numerous interesting gluten-free grains which are now widely available!). In addition there are important reasons to make plant-based foods – and vegetables & fruits in particular – a more significant focus of your diet. Read on to find out why.
The vast majority of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits. A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2015 indicated that <18% of adults in each state consumed the recommended amount of fruit and <14% consumed the recommended amount of vegetables. These numbers leave a lot of room for improvement.
Why is getting enough vegetables and fruits important? As pointed out by the CDC, eating more of these foods adds nutrients to the diet, reduces the risk for heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, and helps manage body weight when consumed in place of more energy-dense foods. And on top of these health benefits, vegetables & fruits increase aesthetic appeal by adding appetizing color and texture to both meals and snacks.
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with celiac disease, there may be additional reason to focus on vegetables & fruits. In individuals who have celiac disease, gluten causes damage to cells in the small intestine, which is where nutrients are normally absorbed. Intestinal cells which have been damaged by gluten are not able to absorb nutrients normally, so deficiencies of some nutrients are not uncommon. These deficiencies generally reverse as the intestine heals and if a healthy gluten-free diet is followed. However, in the early stages after diagnosis, it can be especially important to consume a diet which is rich in the nutrients which may be lacking. Among the nutrients most commonly found to be deficient in newly/recently diagnosed celiac disease patients are: iron, folate, various B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D. The presence of specific deficiencies is individually variable and is influenced by the length of time a person was undiagnosed, the extent of intestinal damage present, and other individual factors. (To have your individual nutritional status assessed, consult with your personal healthcare team.) While many foods of animal origin (meats, fish and dairy products) are also good sources of many of the nutrients mentioned above, focusing more on plant-based foods is one good way to up the vitamin and mineral content of your diet.
So, whether you’ve been gluten-free for a month or twenty years, there are excellent reasons for increasing your intake of vegetables & fruits. Following are some possible obstacles you may be facing, and easy solutions, to help get you going:
- Convenience. If it just seems to take too much time to clean, chop and/or otherwise prep your produce, try prepping in advance. When you’re tired and hungry and need to get dinner on the table, the prospect of cleaning salad ingredients may just seem like too much. Either buy pre-packaged (and pre-washed/prepped) items, or, do your prep work in the morning, the night before, or whenever you have a little extra time and energy. Also, remember that frozen and canned vegetables & fruits are nutritious too. Keep some on hand for times when your fresh stock is low, or when you’re just short on time or energy.
- You simply like meat. The recommendation isn’t to give up meat entirely, just to make it less of a focus on your plate. Instead of having a large steak with a couple stalks of broccoli, try a stir fry brimming with a variety of colorful vegetables, with a modest amount of thinly sliced beef added in. You still get the great taste (and good nutrition, by the way) of beef, while increasing your vegetable intake too.
- Taste. Haven’t developed so much of a taste for vegetables?
There are so many different varieties available – keep exploring and you’re sure to find things you like. This is the perfect time of year to explore locally grown options, which are often particularly fresh and delicious.
Try incorporating produce into favorite dishes:
- Add mushrooms and shredded zucchini to tomato-based pasta sauce.
- Instead of a plain cheese omelet, jazz it up with spinach, tomato and peppers.
- Do you like cheese and (gluten-free) crackers for snacks? Add some cut up veggies to the mix too: carrots, cucumbers and bell peppers will add great texture and visual appeal, in addition to taste and nutrition.
- Add fruit (berries or banana) to your morning cereal or yogurt.
- Give your favorite desserts a healthy makeover by downsizing your serving size dramatically, and serving with your fresh fruit of choice: pear, apple, mango, berries. You’ll still get the satisfaction of enjoying your cake, cookie, or other decadent treat, while adding a nutritious fruit boost at the same time.
If you’re going to make just one modification to your approach to eating, incorporating more vegetables and fruits is one of the simplest and most high impact things you can do. Even if you start small, start now to work more of these terrific foods into your everyday eating plan.