9 Critical Nutrients You May Need To Boost If You're Gluten-Free
Following the gluten-free diet can significantly improve your health if you suffer from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
But you do have to watch out: people who eat gluten-free tend to be deficient in a few vitamins and minerals, and their daily intakes of others may not quite meet recommendations, in part because gluten-free processed foods often aren't supplemented with extra nutrients.
So what can you do about this? Obviously, you can take supplements—and if you're quite deficient in certain nutrients, your doctor may recommend you do so. (Since mega-doses of many vitamins can have negative effects, it goes without saying that you should check with your doctor—and potentially undergo some testing to determine your actual nutrient levels—before beginning a major supplement regimen.)
But if you like the idea of getting as many of your nutrients from your food as possible, then here's a blueprint to help you target foods containing high levels of the particular vitamins and minerals you may be lacking. This may not eliminate the need for you to take supplements, especially if you're just diagnosed (you'll need to talk to your doctor about that), but it certainly can help.
Vitamin B6: Infection-Fighting Vitamin
Chickpeas can help you get vitamin B6 if you follow the gluten-free diet. Getty Images/Ryan McVay
You need vitamin B6 to help you fight off infections, maintain normal nerve function, and carry oxygen throughout your body. You also need it to keep your blood sugar within normal limits. Unfortunately, studies have shown that many people with celiac disease and following the gluten-free diet are low in vitamin B6.
But there are plenty of healthy foods that can give you a boost in this important nutrient.
Start with chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans)—a cup will give you more than half of the vitamin B6 you need in a day. You can mix chickpeas into salads or eat them in the form of hummus (with gluten-free crackers, of course).
You also can get significant amounts of B6 from tuna, salmon, chicken breast and turkey. Even one medium banana has 20% of the vitamin B6 you need each day.
Folate: Helps Make New Cells
Green vegetables can help you get enough folate if you follow the gluten-free diet. Getty Images/Rob MacDougall
Folate, also known as folic acid, is another B vitamin. You may be familiar with folate's role in preventing birth defects (it prevents malformations in your unborn baby's brain and spine), but everyone needs sufficient amounts of it to help their bodies make new cells.
Lots of conventional gluten-containing foods are fortified with extra folate (in large part to prevent birth defects), so if you're eating gluten-free, you'll need to take special care to get enough—you won't be getting anywhere near as much as most people.
Think green to boost your folate levels: spinach, asparagus and brussels sprouts all are high in the nutrient, as are green peas and broccoli. If you eat 10 spears of asparagus or two-thirds of a cup of boiled spinach, you'll be more than halfway to your daily folate goal.
Peanuts also have a surprising amount of folate, although you'd need to eat 10 ounces of peanuts each day to get enough. And half-a-cup of black-eyed peas will provide a quarter of what you need each day.
Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin
Salmon can help provide enough vitamin D if you follow the gluten-free diet. Getty Images/Tony Cordoza
Known as "the sunshine vitamin" because your skin produces it in response to sunlight, vitamin D also can be found in fortified dairy and conventional cereal products—and if you're eating gluten-free (and especially dairy-free, too), you may not get enough vitamin D.
In fact, studies have shown that people with celiac disease are especially prone to vitamin D deficiencies.
Unfortunately, few foods naturally contain much vitamin D—exceptions include cold water fish like swordfish and sockeye salmon, which contain substantial amounts. An egg yolk contains about 10% of the vitamin D you need each day.
If you consume dairy products, you can look for products fortified with vitamin D (that includes most milk and yogurt, but be sure to purchase only gluten-free yogurt). Some brands of orange juice also are fortified with vitamin D (again, check to make sure your juice is considered gluten-free).
Calcium: Boosts Your Bones
Dairy products can make sure you get the calcium you need if you eat gluten-free. Getty Images/Andrew Unangst
Like vitamin D, calcium is found in dairy products—and that doesn't do you a whole lot of good if you're avoiding dairy due to lactose intolerance or because of an additional food sensitivity. So again, like vitamin D, it's no wonder that studies show people with celiac disease don't get the recommended levels of calcium in their diets.
However, that may not mean the gluten-free diet leads to deficiencies in calcium, and in fact the few studies that have been conducted haven't shown calcium deficiencies in people following the gluten-free diet. But since calcium helps to build strong bones and osteoporosis is a major risk for celiacs, it could pay off to up the calcium quotient in your daily diet.
If you eat dairy, there are multiple options for milk products with ample calcium. But if you avoid dairy along with gluten, you still can find calcium: just look for tofu or canned fish with bones. Some orange juice brands also contain added calcium (as with vitamin D-fortified products, just make sure to buy only gluten-free juice).
Iron: Helps Carry Oxygen
Turkey has iron you may need if you follow the gluten-free diet. Getty Images/Andrew Unangst
Anemia—with its link to iron deficiency—is a common symptom of celiac disease, and in fact a study shows people who are anemic at diagnosis may have worse damage to their small intestine than people whose primary celiac symptom was diarrhea.
Therefore, people with celiac disease need to be more careful than average to get enough iron, either through their diets or through supplements. People who don't have celiac but who are following the gluten-free diet also need to be careful, since many people following a conventional gluten-filled diet get enough iron through fortified cereals and other products.
Iron is easy to get if you eat meat: beef and turkey contain plenty. Oysters also are high in iron, and tuna contains some iron.
If, on the other hand, you follow a gluten-free vegetarian diet, you can obtain iron from soybeans and legumes—one cup of soybeans has half the iron you need in a day, while one cup of lentils has 37% of your recommended daily intake. Just make sure to find safe sources of gluten-free soy and gluten-free beans, as these can be quite cross-contaminated with gluten.
Vitamin B12: Fight Your Fatigue
Beef is high in vitamin B12, which may help if you follow the gluten-free diet. Getty Images/Melanie Acevedo
Vitamin B12 helps maintain your nerve and blood cells, and those who are particularly deficient in B12 can find themselves fighting constant fatigue. Research has shown that people with celiac disease don't tend to get enough of vitamin B12 in their diets, although their bodies may not be low in the nutrient.
Part of the reason for that low intake may be that most conventional breakfast cereals are fortified with 100% of your daily vitamin B12 requirements, and of course people who avoid gluten will need to avoid many of those cereals, as well. (There are, of course, many gluten-free cereals on the market, some of which are fortified with vitamins and minerals.)
Meat, fish and dairy products tend to be the best sources of vitamin B12, which is why vegetarians and vegans often are more deficient. A meal-sized portion (4 oz. or more) of salmon or trout will provide 100% of your recommended daily intake, while 6 oz. of beef will give you half of what you need. A cup of milk or an ounce of hard cheese will provide about 15% of your vitamin B12 requirements.
Thiamin, Riboflavin and Niacin: More for Energy
Beans tend to have lots of B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, which you may need if you eat gluten-free. Getty Images/Creative Crop
Thiamin, riboflavin and niacin are all B vitamins, and all play a role in converting food you eat into energy. As with vitamin B12, studies have shown that people following a gluten-free diet don't seem to get enough of these vitamins, although medical testing doesn't indicate they're necessarily deficient.
All three typically are added to conventional fortified gluten-based cereals and breads, which explains why people might get less of them on the gluten-free diet.
Beans tend to be a good source of thiamin—half a cup of green peas or lima beans will give you about 50% of what you need each day. Acorn squash and potatoes also contain significant thiamin.
For riboflavin, meanwhile, you can turn to dairy products: a glass of milk plus a cup of yogurt every day would cover you. Meat also is a good source of riboflavin. If you don't eat meat or dairy, look to almonds and soy nuts for your riboflavin (assuming you can tolerate soy).
Finally, for niacin, all types of meat, poultry, fish and dairy are high in the nutrient. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, look to portobello mushrooms, pumpkin or squash seeds, tempeh, peanuts or beans to get the niacin you need each day.