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Ask JJ: Easy Gluten-Free Swaps

When you go gluten-free, obviously don't swap out your favorite high-sugar impact desserts for gluten-free versions to lose weight or otherwise upgrade your health. You'll simply be disappointed.
03/21/2016 05:34pm ET | Updated March 22, 2017
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Dear JJ: I took your three-week challenge and eliminated gluten. Initially I was skeptical, but after a few days I started feeling much better. I know you stay pretty much gluten-free, and I think I would benefit too, but it's so hard to give up my favorite foods. Do you have suggestions about swapping them out?

Numbers vary, but studies show about 30 percent of Americans have a gluten sensitivity. I find that estimate a little low. About 90 percent of the people I pull off gluten feel enormously better without it, and I'm convinced the other 10 percent didn't really get it all out.

Studies show 30 percent of American adults went gluten-free as of January 2013, and I'm betting that number has become even higher today as newer studies show among its benefits, going gluten-free can reduce inflammation and insulin resistance to help you lose weight and improve overall health.

I've converted numerous people to permanently ditch gluten with one simple challenge: Pull it for three weeks and see how you feel. Most people feel so much better and the weight falls off so effortlessly, they can never imagine eating wheat bread, whole grain wraps, and pasta again.

When you go gluten-free, obviously don't swap out your favorite high-sugar impact desserts for gluten-free versions to lose weight or otherwise upgrade your health. You'll simply be disappointed.

"Sadly, many are picking up gluten-free breads, cookies, and crackers thinking that these products are improving their health and physique," writes nutrition and fitness expert Mike Sheridan. "At the end of the day a brownie is still a brownie, and gluten-free or not, eating one everyday after lunch or consuming a breakfast that looks like the one below isn't going to fix your waistline."

That doesn't mean you need to dutifully abstain from all your favorite foods. Healthier upgrades, or what I call lateral shifts, allow you to enjoy pizza, pasta, and other foods while nixing gluten and getting all those gluten-free benefits. Here are my nine gluten lateral-shift favorites:

1. Trade couscous for quinoa. Couscous becomes a standard side (or even main) dish for many Middle Eastern meals, but it packs gluten and far too many carbs with few nutrients to justify eating it. Quinoa makes a protein-rich, lower-carb, gluten-free, but equally satisfying alternative.

2. Trade tortillas for rice, coconut, or lettuce wraps. Sure, a wrap is better than a bun, but wheat wraps still pack gluten and too many empty carbs. Instead, ask for a gluten-free rice or (my new favorite) coconut wrap. If those aren't available at restaurants, bring your own or ask for your sandwich "protein style" in a Romaine or cabbage wrap.

3. Trade penne for quinoa penne. If spaghetti and meatballs become a favorite at your dinner table, swap equally satisfying corn-free quinoa pasta. It tastes better than regular pasta and your family won't know the difference.

4. Trade spaghetti noodles for spaghetti squash. "Not many people realize that spaghetti squash may be the perfect wheat-free, gluten-free, paleo-friendly, low carb, low calorie solution to pasta," writes Pauline Osena. An even better option is spaghetti quash. Check out some amazing spaghetti squash recipes here.

5. Trade flour for coconut or almond flour. You've got a meatloaf recipe that calls for flour. Try coconut or almond flours or even gluten-free oatmeal instead. They do a great job "binding" meatloaf and other flour-based dishes.

6. Trade soy sauce for Coconut Aminos. My favorite soy-free sashami-dunking sauce!

7. Trade crackers for kale chips. Gluten-free chips and crackers can pack as many carbs as their regular versions, plus they're pretty low in nutrients. Nutrient-rich kale earned its rock star status for many reasons, plus it's pretty darn easy to make your own chips.

8. Trade pizza crust for Portobellos or cauliflower. I love throwing Portobello mushrooms in the oven with low-sugar marinara, cashew cheese or (if you're not dairy sensitive) goat cheese, and maybe some sautéed spinach for a super-fast mini-meal. Alternately, try a cauliflower pizza "crust." PureWow provides a fabulous recipe here.

9. Trade breaded chicken tenders for almond- or coconut-flour crusted chicken tenders. Kids love chicken tenders because they taste good, and parents like their grab-and-go effortlessness. But most commercial brands and restaurant versions come breaded in white flour and deep-fried (double yuck). Opt instead for homemade strips "breaded" in coconut flour. Skip the sugar-loaded BBQ sauce and use spicy mustard for dunking.

If you've gone gluten-free, what upgrade would you add to this list? Share yours below, and keep those amazing questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.