What Are Gluten Free Carbs?

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Originally published on May 25, 2020; Updated and republished on March 13, 2022.

Gluten Free Carbs might seem like a strange topic, but if you follow a gluten free diet, it is a subject worth understanding.

In my practice I have noticed that when people initially avoid gluten, they have good intentions but not always good results.

There can be several reasons for this, but frequently they stop eating usual foods (such as cereal, bread, and pasta) but don’t know what foods to eat instead. 

Then, they end up eating a much lower carbohydrate diet and suffer from ongoing hunger, fatigue, and unintended weight loss. 

To work around this, we have to know which carbohydrate foods are gluten free.

And to really understand this, we’ll discuss gluten, complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates, and related topics. 

Clarification

In everyday conversation, people tend to use the terms Carbs and Carbohydrates to describe food groups, as in “I don’t really eat carbs.” 

The more accurate way of saying this could be “I’m limiting my intake of foods that contain complex carbohydrates,” or “I’m avoiding starches and grains,” or “I have diabetes, so I’m following a controlled carbohydrate diet to help manage my blood sugar.”

Carbohydrates are a nutrient and include both complex carbohydrates (starches) and simple carbohydrates (sugars). Complex Carbohydrates are found in Grains, Cereals, Beans/Legumes, and Starchy Vegetables. Simple Carbohydrates are found in fruit, milk, honey, and table sugar. 

Carbohydrates are also found in vegetables and nuts but in smaller quantities when consumed in customary amounts. This blog post won’t address these foods or the topic of fiber in detail. For more detailed information on these topics, please see this article on Carbohydrates

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What Is Gluten Exactly? 

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats. Gluten is found in the wheat varieties of spelt, kamut, farrow, durum, bulgur, triticale and semolina.

A myriad of foods contain gluten, such as baked goods, crackers, cereals, bread, and pasta. Gluten is often a hidden ingredient in foods. 

Think of gluten as a glue. Its main job is to allow food to maintain its shape by keeping it held together like glue (source).

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder that is triggered by the consumption of gluten-containing foods (source). This disease can cause long-term damage to the small intestine.

You may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) or a wheat allergy, where consuming gluten-containing foods will also trigger symptoms for your body without long-term intestinal damage.

For people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy, following a gluten-free diet is the treatment needed to sustain a healed and healthy digestive system.

Is A Gluten-Free Diet Healthy? 

The World Health Organization defines a healthy diet as one that “protects against malnutrition in all of its forms” (source).

Anyone walking the earth today is at risk of malnutrition if they aren’t eating a balanced variety of healthy foods. With individual dietary limitations, your risk for malnutrition is higher.

If you have Celiac disease, NCGS, or a wheat allergy, following a gluten-free diet is required for your safety. However, this alone does not ensure that your diet is adequate or enjoyable.  

You may already follow a gluten-free diet and be familiar with the many gluten-free products on the market today. Many of these foods are processed and lack beneficial nutrition. Gluten free breads and baked goods may be lacking in fiber and contain hidden added sugars. 

A study done in 2013 assessed the diet quality of 55 adult patients with Celiac disease over 12 months and found nutrition inadequacies in fiber, folate, thiamin, calcium, zinc, and magnesium (source).

Have you ever thought about the nutritional quality of your gluten-free diet plan? Some of my clients who eat a gluten-free diet tend to avoid complex carbohydrates. Sometimes they’ve been told to avoid all carbs, starches, anything white, and all processed foods.

Planning a diet strictly based on what you can’t eat may compromise the quality of your nutrition, and this may lead to further health problems. (This is why I recommend meal planning based on what you CAN eat.)

A poorly planned diet may compromise the quality of your nutrition which may lead to further health problems. The good news is that including gluten free carbs in your diet can be tasty, economical, and healthy. 

What Is the Difference Between Simple and Complex Carbohydrates? 

Food is mainly composed of three main macronutrients:  protein, fat, and carbohydrates. These nutrients provide your body with energy through metabolism. 

Carbohydrates, or carbs, can be broken down into two categories– simple and complex.  

Complex Carbohydrates include starches and fiber.

Simple Carbohydrates are sugars. 

Simple Carbohydrates:

  • Are made up of short links of sugar molecules that are digested quickly in your body (source).
  • Cause a quick rise in blood sugars after consumption.
  • Are found in fruit, dairy, honey, syrups, sweets, juice, and soda (source).

Complex Carbohydrates:

  • Are made up of long links of sugar molecules that are digested more slowly in your body.
  • Generally, provide a more gradual blood sugar increase, especially when consumed in their whole state and in proper quantities (source).
  • Complex carbohydrates are found in grains, cereals, starchy vegetables (like potato and sweet potato) beans, and legumes
  • Foods containing complex carbohydrates provide a substantial array of nutrition benefits.
  • Food containing complex carbohydrates contain fiber, especially when consumed in minimally processed forms. 

Benefits of Complex Carbs 

  • Starchy foods provide complex carbohydrates, which are digested more slowly than simple sugars.
  • Starchy foods such as grains provide vitamins and minerals including iron, B vitamins, iron, selenium, magnesium, and zinc (source). 
  • Starchy foods provide phytonutrients (source).
  • Starchy foods provide antioxidants (source).
  • Starchy foods provide fiber (source).
  • Starchy foods may help reduce heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol (source). 
  • Starchy foods may prevent constipation and promote gut health.
  • Starchy foods help you feel full and satisfied.
  • Starchy foods (in their whole form) are generally low in fat and cholesterol free.  
  • Complex carbohydrates provide energy for metabolism, activity, and exercise. 

Gluten Free Carbohydrates

When you can not eat gluten gains, it is important to replace these foods with other comparable foods that are gluten free. For most meals, choosing a source of complex carbohydrates makes the most sense.

But when that is not possible, you can consume simple carbohydrates from fruit and dairy. 

While fruits and vegetables are often grouped together, it is important to note that non-starchy vegetables are much lower in carbohydrates when compared to grains, starchy vegetables, dairy, and fruit.

For a comparison of carbohydrate content between each food group, using a diabetic exchange list can be helpful. 

Gluten-Free Fruit

In addition to fresh fruits, 100% juice and dried fruits are also options. 

Fruits contain simple carbohydrates and are gluten-free. However, if you are purchasing fruits that have been processed, it is important to check the label to make sure the product is free of gluten.

In addition to fresh fruits, 100% juice and dried fruits are also options.

The list below is not exhaustive but can give you some ideas for what kinds of fruits you may enjoy.

  • Apple
  • Banana
  • Blackberry
  • Blueberry
  • Cherry
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Grape
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwifruit
  • Lemon
  • Mango
  • Melon 
  • Orange
  • Pineapple
  • Pear
  • Raisins
  • Raspberry
  • Strawberry
  • Watermelon

Gluten-Free Dairy Products

Dairy is naturally gluten-free, but with the addition of additives in food processing, there is a chance that a product could contain gluten. Always be sure to check labels. 

Tip: Some people who do not tolerate gluten may also have difficulty with dairy. That’s why we often hear about “Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free” foods.

If you can eat dairy, here is a list of some common gluten-free dairy products.

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Ghee
  • Ice Cream
  • Milk
  • Sour Cream
  • Yogurt

Gluten-Free Complex Carbohydrates

Most people enjoy their meals and have good nutrition when they include a complex carbohydrate as part of the meal. 

Complex Carbohydrates are found in the following food groups: Grains, Starchy Vegetables, and Legumes. I’ve also included a list of pseudo-grains. Sometimes these are grouped with grains as they are used similarly.

These gluten free grains can be consumed individually or are sometimes combined for making gluten free breads, flours, and other products. 

Be sure to choose grains that are labeled “Gluten Free” as there is a risk of cross contamination if these gluten free products are processed or farmed alongside gluten containing products. 

Gluten-Free Grain List  

The following gluten free grains are usually tolerated by people on a gluten free diet. However, some people who avoid gluten also avoid all cereal grains. 

  • Corn (Sometimes corn is also considered a starchy vegetable.)
  • Millet
  • Oats (Only when labeled Gluten Free)
  • Rice
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Wild Rice 

Clarification: Be sure not to get confused between gluten free grains and ancient grains. Some of the ancient grains are in the wheat family, and are not gluten free. 

Gluten Free Pseudo-Grains 

These are technically seeds but are used as grains in cooking. 

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat (Also known as Buckwheat Groats and Kasha)
  • Quinoa 

Gluten-Free, Grain-Free Complex Carbohydrates 

Some diets exclude both gluten and all grains. 

Starchy Vegetables and Legumes, provide complex carbohydrates and are naturally gluten free. 

Starchy Vegetables 

  • Arrowroot 
  • Green Banana (Green banana is technically a fruit but is higher in starchy carbohydrates.)
  • Cassava, also known as Yuca. (Tapioca is made from Cassava.)
  • Corn (Corn is sometimes considered a grain as well.)
  • Parsnips
  • Plantain
  • Potato
  • Pumpkin
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Taro
  • Yams
  • Legumes List
Photograph of Cassava with ends cut off to show white interior.

Beans

  • Adzuki
  • Black Beans
  • Black Eyed Peas 
  • Broad Beans (Also known as Fava Beans)
  • Cannellini Beans
  • Chickpeas (Also known as Garbanzo Beans) 
  • Edamame (Soy Beans)
  • Great Northern Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lima Beans
  • Mung Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • White Beans
  • Lentils
  • French Lentils
  • Green Lentils
  • Red Lentils
  • Yellow Lentils 

Peas

  • Green Peas
  • Split Green Peas (dried)
  • Yellow Split Peas (dried)

There are other varieties of beans, peas, lentils, pulses as well. I’ve included the ones that are most common and can be used as a source of complex carbohydrates. Foods in this list also contain protein. 

INFOGRAPHIC TITLED "GLUTEN FREE COMPLEX CARBS WITH LIST OF GRAINS, PSEUDO GRAINS, STARCHY VEGETABLES, BEANS, PEAS, LENTILS, LEGUMES THAT ARE GLUTEN FREE; PHOTOGRAPH OF A GRAIN BOWL

(Have you read our blog post about Beans and Lentils? Learn more about these amazing ingredients.)

Gluten Free Substitutes

Sometimes non-starchy foods are used as gluten free substitutes for noodles and other starches. Examples are Zucchini Noodles (Zoodles), Riced Cauliflower, and Konjac Noodles. These foods are tasty, versatile, and nutritious and can be used in many dishes.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that these foods are much lower in carbohydrates and calories. While this can be beneficial at times, it is important to think about food groups when planning meals.

Meals that are too low in carbohydrates and calories can seem filling and satisfying but might not keep you full for long. This could cause overeating at the next meal or increased snacking in between meals. 

Gluten Free Flour List 

Most conventional baked goods in the United States use wheat flour. The following are gluten free flours that can be used in place of wheat flour. 

Most of these don’t have the same physical properties as wheat flour, so further adjustments to recipes may be needed.

  • Almond Flour
  • Amaranth Flour
  • Arrowroot Flour
  • Banana Flour
  • Brown Rice Flour
  • Buckwheat Flour
  • Cassava Flour 
  • Coconut Flour
  • Corn Flour
  • Garbanzo Bean Flour
  • Oat Flour (Look for one that is labeled gluten free.)
  • Plantain Flour 
  • Potato Starch
  • Rice Flour
  • Sorghum Flour
  • Tapioca Flour
  • Sweet Potato Flour
  • Teff Flour
  • Tigernut Flour

How to Add Complex Carbs to your Meals

Eating enjoyable, safe, and satisfying meals is part of a healthy lifestyle. 

Here are some examples below on how to easily add gluten free carbs to create a balanced gluten-free meal.

  • Salad with Grilled Chicken: Add canned chickpeas or cooked lentils to the salad.
  • Vegetable Omelet: Add Potato 
  • Scrambled Eggs: Serve with Grits or Corn Tortilla
  • Steak and Broccoli: Add baked potato
  • BBQ Meatballs and Roasted Carrots: Serve with Quinoa
  • Grilled Salmon and Vegetables: Serve with Sweet Potato

Tip: It’s a good idea to identify a few “go-to” complex carbohydrate foods — foods that you know you like and that are easy to prepare. After you do this, try adding a new gluten free food to your diet on a regular basis. Variety keeps your diet interesting and healthy. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some other gluten free complex carb products that people can buy?

  • Garri (Grated Cassava)
  • Gluten Free Baked Goods
  • Gluten Free Bread
  • Gluten Free Tortillas
  • Puffed Rice
  • Fufu Flour – may be made from Yam, Cassava, Plantain, Oat or other ingredients. Used for making fufu, not baked goods.

Is Rice Gluten Free?

Yes. Rice is gluten free. 

However, be cautious of rice mixes and combination foods that contain gravies, sauces, and other seasonings. Also, be cautious of rice dishes that contain a combination of rice and noodles. 

Is Gluten Free Low Carb?

Sometimes the terms “Gluten Free” and “Low Carb” are used together, but they mean very different things. 

Gluten Free means that the food is not made from gluten containing ingredients. Some Gluten Free foods are low carb. Examples include fats, oils, non-starchy vegetables, cheese, meat, seafood, and chicken. 

However, many gluten free foods are sources of carbohydrates. Examples include fruits, beans, lentils, milk, soy milk, starchy vegetables, and non-gluten grains. 

The best way to ensure that a food meets your dietary needs is to read the food label in detail. Look at the ingredient list as well as the nutrition facts. 

Does Gluten Free Pasta Have Carbs?

It all depends on what the pasta is made out of. Most gluten free pastas are made from corn, rice, or other gluten free grains. These would have a comparable amount of carbohydrates as conventional wheat pasta. 

Lower carb, gluten free noodles and noodle alternatives do exist. Examples would be spiralized zucchini noodles and konjac noodles. 

Does Gluten Free Bread Have Carbs?

Most gluten free breads have carbs because they are made with gluten free flours, which are made from gluten free grains.

However, there are some lower carb gluten free breads which are made from ingredients such as almond flour, eggs, coconut flour, pea protein powder, and psyllium husk. 

Is Gluten Free the same as Plant Based? 

The terms “gluten free” and “plant based” are often used together but they have very different meanings. Gluten free foods do not contain gluten. Plant based foods are made from mostly plant ingredients. 

Some gluten free foods are also plant based. Examples include nuts, seeds, oils, and non-starchy vegetables, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and legumes.

Some gluten free foods are not plant based. Examples include dairy products, eggs, seafood, meat, and poultry. 

Bottom Line

Foods containing complex carbohydrates may help fight chronic diseases and are part of a healthy diet. There are plenty of gluten free carbs to choose from to make certain you’re getting enough fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Be sure to seek medical advice if you have concerns about your Celiac disease, NCSS, or wheat allergy.

Final Thoughts:

Packaged gluten-free products are often both expensive and lacking in fiber and other nutrients. Foods that are naturally gluten free and easy to find at the grocery store, are usually priced more fairly, are often more nutritious, and may be more accepted by your family. 

What are your favorite gluten free carbs? Let me know in the comments. 

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Authors

  • Lisa Hugh is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Leap Therapist. She has a Masters of Science in Healthcare Administration. As a a Food Sensitivity Expert, her passion is helping people with complex medical and nutrition needs find food and groceries that are safe and enjoyable. Lisa enjoys helping clients in her private practice.

  • Gabrielle McPherson is a Registered Dietitian and Freelance Writer. Gabrielle has a masters degree in Clinical Nutrition and a bachelors degree in Dietetics. She has worked extensively with pediatrics and works as a freelance health and nutrition writer.

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