The Gluten-Free Diabetes Diet

'Gluten free' sign at pavement cafe

Westend61 / Getty Images

Gluten is a protein in various kinds of grains. It helps food keep its shape, basically acting like a kind of glue to keep the food together. But some people can't eat anything that has gluten.

And if you're a diabetic, that means you need to eat foods that are gluten-free as well as foods that help keep blood sugar levels steady. It's not easy to follow a gluten-free diet that also works for diabetes.

Both diets may feel really restrictive, limiting your food choices. Gluten-free foods may also have high amounts of sugar to improve taste, making them dangerous for people who also have diabetes.

But if you've been diagnosed with either celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, plus either type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, you need to learn how to balance the dietary requirements of each condition.

This article will discuss what you need to do to stay healthy if you have diabetes and need to follow a gluten-free diet.

Reasons to Avoid Gluten

Doctors recommend you go gluten-free if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If you have celiac disease, eating foods with gluten damages your small intestine.

And even though non-celiac gluten sensitivity doesn't cause the same damage, you may still experience similar symptoms, like brain fog, stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, headache, and a rash.

People with type 1 diabetes are more likely to have celiac disease, because both conditions involve the immune system. Those with both a gluten-related condition and diabetes need to control their blood sugar and keep gluten out of their diets.

The bad news is that some of the foods you'll find that are safe on the gluten-free diet are unhealthy for someone who has diabetes. This can affect your blood sugar management and cause problems with your diabetes.

The good news is that learning to manage both conditions through your diet can improve your health. But there's no doubt that juggling the two diets at the same time is a challenge.

Recap

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it's important to stay away from foods that contain gluten. People with celiac disease run the risk of damaging the small intestine whenever they eat gluten-filled foods. And those who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity may experience the same symptoms a person with celiac disease experiences.

2:35

How to Make Dark Chocolate Avocado “Pudding”

Foods That Contain Gluten

Unfortunately, there are many foods on grocery shelves that contain gluten, some of which are surprising. It's important to carefully check the ingredients of any packaged products. Always look for the words "gluten-free" when reading food labels.

The gluten-free label shows that a product doesn't contain gluten. It also ensures that the product wasn't made in a facility where other gluten-containing products are produced, which could mean there is still gluten in the food.

Here is a list of the main grains that contain gluten:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale (a mix of rye and wheat)

Listed below are just a few common foods that contain gluten. Talk with your doctor or dietitian to find out more:

  • Bread and pastries
  • Imitation meats and seafood
  • Pasta
  • Cereal
  • Granola
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Potato chips/tortilla chips
  • Processed meat like hot dogs and lunchmeat
  • Flour tortillas

Recap

Wheat, barley, rye, and triticale are all grains that have gluten. If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it's important to avoid them. These grains are found in common foods like bread, pasta, cereal, pastries, and tortillas.

Gluten-Free Grains

If you're gluten-free, you may be thinking that there are no grains safe for you to eat. Fortunately, there are gluten-free grains that are good alternatives. Some gluten-free grains are:

  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat
  • Sorghum
  • Certified gluten-free oats
  • Teff

Other Substitutes

So how do you swap out common gluten-filled foods with lower-carb gluten-free substitutes? You can do this by trying simple things such as eating nut-based flours like almond or coconut flour.

A gluten-free diet can make it hard to get the recommended amount of fiber (which also helps keep blood sugar steady). But you can get fiber through vegetables, which are also great for a diabetes diet. Eating beans, seeds, and nuts will also help boost your fiber.

For example, instead of pasta, eat zucchini spirals. They're commonly found in the frozen food section, or you can get a kitchen tool to create your own from fresh zucchini.

If you're craving pizza, using gluten-free ingredients like cauliflower crust can help satisfy your urge while protecting your health.

Developing a Meal Plan

When you require a gluten-free eating lifestyle and you have diabetes too, it's important to work with a dietitian to develop a meal plan for your unique needs. Dietitians can help you identify the foods and drinks that are safe to include in your eating plan.

When you go shopping, eat out, or cook at home, you'll have the tools you need to stay healthy. The right meal plan, especially one that provides enough fiber through vegetables, allows you to receive the nutrients you need.

Managing Blood Sugar

If you have celiac disease, watch your blood sugar levels. Celiac disease damages your small intestine, keeping your body from absorbing the food you eat. When you begin the gluten-free diet and your small intestine begins to heal, you'll start to absorb nutrients again. This can temporarily affect your blood sugar, so pay closer attention to your blood sugar levels.

Your diabetes test results may temporarily get worse. As your body absorbs more nutrients, you may also gain weight and have a higher cholesterol level. One study found that hemoglobin A1C levels (a blood test that measures long-term blood sugar) rise when kids with diabetes and celiac disease eat gluten-free.

Talk to your doctor to learn how to manage your blood sugar while also following a gluten-free diet. This will make sure you are doing everything you can to provide your body with the food it needs to manage your celiac disease/non-celiac gluten sensitivity and diabetes.

Gluten-Free Foods to Avoid

Eating gluten-free is necessary if you are living with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But there are some gluten-free foods you should think about avoiding. Foods containing refined carbohydrates are unhealthy, even if they're gluten-free.

Even though calorie counts are similar between gluten-containing and gluten-free products, gluten-free baked goods are higher in carbs. That's because manufacturers add sweeteners to make up for the missing gluten.

In fact, many products marketed as gluten-free are processed foods. By now, most of us know that processed foods aren't the healthiest choices. Try to eat whole, natural foods that will improve your health and nourish your body.

Handy Gluten-Free Treats

It's important to keep carb snacks on hand to treat low blood sugar levels. Try to stick with snacks that contain no more than 15 grams of carbs. Always pack a gluten-free snack in case your blood sugar drops.

It’s easier these days to find gluten-free foods at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, but they’re not as plentiful as other kinds of foods. And when your blood sugar drops, you have a greater chance of accidentally eating something with gluten.

So gluten-free-labeled energy and protein bars are smart choices. Gluten-free crackers and gluten-free meal supplement drinks can also help treat low blood sugar levels as well.

Summary

Learning about gluten-free foods and ways to manage your blood sugar will help you learn to balance having diabetes and celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Consider setting up an appointment with a dietitian who has expertise in both diets. They can help you with meal planning and make sure your meals are nutritious and safe for you to eat.

Was this page helpful?
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Celiac Disease Foundation. What is gluten?.

  2. Kupper C, Higgens LA. Combining diabetes and gluten-free dietary management guidelinesPractical Gastroenterology. March 2007:68-83.

  3. Celiac Disease Foundation. Diabetes and celiac disease.

Additional Reading