You may think that going gluten-free is just another fad diet, but it’s actually a necessity for managing very real and serious health issues that many Americans face, including celiac disease, gluten sensitivities and gluten intolerance. It’s a problem that experts estimate affects nearly 18 million people in the U.S. But before you go gluten-free, it’s important to know all of the facts so you can do so in the safest way possible.

Do

Do educate yourself about gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Many people are able to easily digest this protein, and it has no effect on their overall health. But individuals with any type of gluten sensitivity or intolerance can suffer serious consequences — from constipation and bloating to diarrhea and malabsorption — which can result in malnutrition and severe weight loss. While there is a diagnostic test for celiac disease, there are no tests that identify gluten intolerance or sensitivities other than eliminating gluten from the diet and reintroducing it to see if symptoms recur. Though there is no clearly defined set of symptoms, gluten sensitivity and intolerance have been associated with bloating and other digestive problems, migraines or headaches, joint pains, brain fog, chronic fatigue and eczema and other skin irritations.

Do read food labels

It can be very easy to assume which foods contain gluten and which don’t. While wheat bread, pasta and flour are fairly easy to identify as containing gluten, other foods aren’t so easy to spot. In fact, many processed foods that you would never think of as containing gluten actually do, such as cooking spray, soy sauce, salad dressing, mustard and flavored yogurt. The FDA requires food manufacturers to list the eight most common ingredients that trigger food allergies on labels: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Gluten is not included on that list because technically it’s not an allergen, but there are efforts underway to change this. Until labeling is mandatory, it is important to read food labels for ingredients such as wheat, soy and even gelatin to prevent becoming ill.

Do eat plenty of fresh, unprocessed foods

The best grocery shopping advice for those who are on a gluten-free diet, or anyone interested in healthy eating, is to stick to the outer aisles. That’s because typically everything in those areas — fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, etc. — is not processed and is therefore less likely to contain gluten. Though some processed foods, such as potato chips, are safe to eat, as a rule, the more processed food is, the more likely it is to contain some amount of gluten.

Do look for gluten-free certification on products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mandating new labeling rules that go into effect August 5, 2014. After that date, all products labeled “gluten-free,” “without gluten,” “free of gluten” or “no gluten” can contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. It’s important to look for a certified gluten-free seal issued by a third-party organization, such as NSF International, which shows that companies have the right processes in place to prevent gluten contamination and to consistently stay below 20 ppm gluten. To earn gluten-free certification under NSF’s program, companies must have a gluten-free compliance plan and undergo on-site inspections of their production and handling facilities in addition to annual product testing. This assures consumers that the food contains less than 20 ppm gluten and that it has gone through a supply chain free of gluten.

Don't

Do not forget to inform or remind friends and family of your dietary sensitivities

Eating gluten-free can be tough when your family and friends don’t have the same restrictions, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your dietary requirements known. Whether you’re going out to eat or dining at your house or theirs, make sure they know what’s off limits for you so they can accommodate — or if they’re your dinner guests, so they know what to expect.

Do not cross-contaminate in the kitchen

Whether you’ve recently gone gluten-free or are sharing a kitchen with someone who isn’t following your diet, you need to think about how to prevent gluten from contaminating your food, dishes, utensils, etc. One option is to keep silverware and dishes separate. In addition, you should make sure to always clean any shared spaces — counters, stoves and refrigerator shelves — thoroughly after gluten products have touched them.

Do not go out to eat unprepared

Though many restaurants now offer gluten-free menus, there are plenty that don’t. Make sure you’re not caught unaware when sitting down to order. Most restaurants have online menus, so take a look before you head out and plan exactly what you’re going to eat. Fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry or beef are solid choices. And don’t be afraid to ask the waiter or waitress any questions you may have about certain dishes.

Do not forget about alcohol

This could put a damper on the party, but if you’re going gluten-free, you need to put down the beer, ale and stout (unless it is certified gluten-free). Instead, consider hard ciders as many are gluten-free or go for wine, light rum or vodka (made from potatoes).

Summary

A gluten-free diet is a necessity for many people, so being properly informed and armed with the facts about gluten is a must if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Even for those who are opting to go gluten-free as a choice, it’s important to keep these tips in mind so you can ensure that you do it right.