NEW YORK (MainStreet) — More and more people are starting to catch on to the wave of going gluten-free. Many, however, are unaware as to what gluten actually is and how it can potentially cause great damage to both the digestive and immune systems. It is also assumed that gluten-free diets are unavoidably costly, which is not necessarily true. Read on to find out more about gluten, to debunk some myths, and to learn how you can, in fact, go gluten-free on a budget!

What is gluten?

According to LiveScience, "gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat endosperm." More specifically, gluten is actually made up of two different proteins, gliadin and glutenin. Although the definition says that it is found in wheat endosperm, it can also be found in other grains such as barley and rye. Gluten is one of the primary ingredients in dough that helps it rise as bread and gives it its chewy texture.

Why should it be avoided?

This article from the Huffington Post explains that gluten, when consumed by a person who is gluten-allergic or gluten-intolerant, can react poorly with the natural enzymes in the digestive system. Over time, this negative reaction inhibits proper functioning of the intestinal walls, creating digestive issues and halting the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. This chain of events can lead to more serious issues such as "leaky gut syndrome," which is when large particles of undigested food make their way into the blood stream. Ultimately, various autoimmune diseases have the potential to arise from the leaky gut, because the cells will automatically start to attack the foreign particles.

Can gluten still bother me even if I don't have Celiac's disease?

Celiac's disease is the most commonly-known gluten allergy. However, even if you test negative for a gluten allergy, there is a chance that you may still be "gluten intolerant." According to the website for The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, "research estimates that 18 million Americans have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. That's 6 times the amount of Americans who have Celiac disease."

What are the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance?

The most common symptoms involve bloating, constipation, fatigue, brain fog, joint pain, mood swings and hormonal imbalances. This article, from Mind Body Green, urges people to self-test for gluten intolerance by removing gluten from the diet for a period of at least two to three weeks, and then reintroducing it. You should monitor how you're feeling throughout the entire process with the use of a journal. If you find that symptoms dissipate or arise with the removal and reintroduction of gluten, then you may want to consider adopting a gluten-free diet.

But, gluten-free products are SO expensive, and I'm on a budget! Can I still do it? The answer is yes!

Here are some tips on successfully going gluten-free without overspending:

1. Know what to buy. Eat naturally gluten-free foods. Rice, beans, vegetables, fruit and meat are all naturally gluten-free, nutrient-rich and some of the most inexpensive items at the supermarket. Spaghetti squash and zucchini "noodles" make great gluten-free pasta substitutes, and mashed cauliflower is a great GF substitute for mashed potatoes! Bill Staley and Hayley Mason, nutritional gurus and founders of Primal Palate, weigh in on this subject by saying: "The foods that are healthiest for you, are also healthiest for your wallet. Eating 'naturally gluten-free' is not expensive. Gluten-free crackers, gluten-free pizza and gluten-free cupcake mixes are expensive. They also contain less nutrients, so you end up needing to buy more food to get those nutrients." Staley and Mason also give this great tip when it comes to cooking your own food: "Recipes are not written in stone. If a recipe calls for an obscure, gluten-free ingredient, see what else you can replace it with! You can do this for naturally gluten-free ingredients as well. I rarely buy yellow or red bell peppers because they cost twice as much as green. Whole carrots are half the price of baby carrots. Cabbage is half the price of Brussel sprouts, and tastes the same. Little swap outs can make a huge difference." Great pointers to keep in mind when browsing the supermarket!

2. Know how to buy food. Holly Bortfeld, lead author at Talk About Curing Autism, states the following: "Side by side comparisons of gluten-free (GF) versus typical packaged foods show GF foods are more expensive. But, any diet where you are using a lot of packaged foods is more expensive than if you cook foods yourself. Avoid the middle 90% of the grocery store where all of the packaged 'foods' are, sticking to the produce, meat and the international aisles (for items like rice and beans)." She also points out that you can food shop in places other than local grocery stores. "Comparison shop online and buy by the case," Bortfeld says. "Websites like and have some great prices on packaged dry goods like GF pastas. Save money on other items like meats and veggies by buying direct from the farmers on sites like and so that you can afford the few premade GF items you may want." Purchasing one item frequently at the supermarket can be expensive and time-consuming. Many of the aforementioned websites offer discounts on bulk items, ensuring the same quality product for a smaller price.

3. Learn to cook it all yourself! With more people out in the workforce these days, it's not surprising that many rely on convenience foods for the majority of their meals. However, remember the old saying: you'll never know until you try. Cooking and preparing your own meals is not an impossible feat! Dr. Kellyann Petrucci, nutritionist and author of several health books, gives the following advice: "Plan, plan, plan. Set aside one or two days a week to whip up some meals and dishes that are your family's favorites. You can also slice veggies, make salsa, hard-boil some eggs, etc., to have them at the ready. Batch-cook food and freeze. Soups, chilis, and stews are often budget-friendly, quick, and can be doubled and stored in the freezer. Last minute, on-the-run trips to the grocery store usually involve hasty decisions and extra spending." Planning is the key when it comes to successfully budgeting time and money, all while learning how to cook healthy, gluten-free, well-balanced meals.

4. Take control, and keep controlling. Todd Nief, owner of the Chicago CrossFit gym, South Loop Strength & Conditioning, explains that "cooking on a budget with a new dietary restriction often requires a mental investment in learning to shop differently and learning to prepare foods differently." It takes effort but won't necessarily hit you in the pocket book. "This investment of time and energy is, in reality, often a bigger hurdle than the cost," he said. "Simply relying on willpower when going to the store and when heading home to eat after a long, tiring day at work will not result in lasting change for most people." In order to be successful in your gluten-free adventure, you are going to have to put in some extra time to research recipes, substitutions, etc. and you will also have to muster up some extra patience with yourself. A dietary change is a big deal! It takes practice, and you need to be aware that mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned. What matters is how you come back from your mistakes!

5. Make your dollar stretch! Jennifer Fugo, certified health coach and founder of Gluten Free School, says, "Pay more attention to reducing your food waste by utilizing your freezer to save leftovers, extra portions, fresh produce, like berries, and many vegetables, like onions, peppers, celery and carrots before they go bad." Substitute your frozen convenience foods (e.g. pizzas, chicken nuggets, etc.) for the foods above, and they will be just as simple to defrost, yet less expensive and much more nutritious. Many people tend to throw out leftover veggies or fruits that have since gone rotten, and although it may seem like a small amount of waste at the time, it definitely adds up in cost.

--Written by Ciara Larkin for MainStreet