Spring Cleaning Your Diet

Amie Valpone, an advocate of eating whole foods, on how to be gluten free and healthy

It’s hard to find anyone who is not trying to eat at least a little healthier these days. Healthy eating messages bombard us from all directions. We can find calorie counts and fat grams for foods everywhere from the package label to the fast food restaurant menu board. Print and social media urge us to stick to natural whole foods based on studies that show these are the best bets. Still, healthy eating can be a struggle because there’s a pull in the opposite direction from processed food that makes our busy lives easier and tempts us by tapping into our cravings. And there are some special challenges if you are gluten free.

We asked Amie Valpone, founder of the The Healthy Apple website, to talk about healthy gluten-free eating and how we can make healthy changes in our diet. Valpone, 31, lives in New York City and previously worked in marketing at Vogue and Ralph Lauren. She eventually left corporate America to become an expert in “clean eating,” advocating nutrient-rich, organic foods that don’t contain growth hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.

Valpone has been gluten free for a decade, and continuing health issues prompted her to also go dairy, soy, corn and sugar free three years ago. While Valpone is not trying to make everyone eat exactly like her, as a chef, recipe creator and whole living proponent, she pushes the idea that we all can eat healthier. And she says it’s not as hard as we think.

Amy Leger: How healthy do you think the average gluten-free diet is?

Amie Valpone: If you are eating one-ingredient foods, the average gluten-free diet is healthy because you’re not eating processed foods out of a box.

AL: What do you mean by one-ingredient foods?

AV: They are foods such as an organic egg or organic kale. There are no additives in these foods, no sugar or chemicals added. Nothing. Just the actual food.

AL: Do you think most people on the gluten-free diet eat mainly one-ingredient foods or are most relying on processed products?

AV: I think it’s mixed. I think there are people who eat one-ingredient foods and eat very clean. And then there are others who eat a whole lot of processed gluten-free foods, which is fine every now and again. Kids like cookies. You have to treat yourself every once in a while. But I think as long as you have a good balance of whole foods and eating them as much as you can, you’re good to go.

AL: Overall, what is your definition of a healthy gluten-free diet?

AV: It’s the basics: some kind of lean organic protein, gluten-free whole grains, organic vegetables, getting enough fiber and then definitely a healthy fat, like an avocado, nuts, seeds, flax oil.

AL: Can you give us some specific examples?

AV: Whole grains include quinoa, amaranth and teff. Vegetables include leafy greens like chard, kale, collard greens, arugula or spinach. Not iceberg lettuce. A lean protein can be a chicken breast, turkey or a low-mercury fish like shrimp or tilapia.

AL: The availability and selection of gluten-free products has really changed over the last four to five years. Eating gluten free is a lot easier now. How do you think these new products have helped or hindered a healthy gluten-free lifestyle?

AV: I started the gluten-free diet in college more than 10 years ago. Now, you know, it’s kind of crazy how much the product selection has come up. There was no gluten-free bread back then … there was nothing. Now my favorite breads are Udi’s and Rudi’s. They are both doing a really good job with breads, tortillas and rolls. Kind Bar is one of my favorites. They just came out with gluten-free granola and gluten-free bars. And the company that makes CrunchMaster Crackers, they are amazing. People who aren’t even gluten free love them. Sabra hummus is one of my favorite brands because it’s a little snack pack. So Delicious has a line of almond milk and coconut milk and ice cream. I think the brand is amazingly clean and not full of processed ingredients.

There are great, great products out there that are gluten free, but I think you just have to go through with a fine-toothed comb and see what’s in everything. Some of the stuff that is out there, like some of the cookies, cupcakes and bars, are just like processed sawdust. And they have all these chemicals in them.

AL: Feeding gluten-free children can get even more difficult as they get older with birthday parties, school sports and activities, and nights out with friends. What can be done to help them make healthy food choices?

AV: I tell parents to keep it simple. You take a few ingredients: carrots, zucchini, endive, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and maybe beets. You buy three new root vegetables a week, cut them up into fries, so they look like McDonald’s fries. Toss them into your oven with cinnamon and sea salt, sweeten them with maple syrup or put on chili powder, pepper and maybe balsamic vinegar. Have those in your fridge all week for your kids to enjoy, maybe with guacamole, salsa or hummus. This way when they come home from school they won’t reach for something out of a box.

AL: But what role does education play in all this? For example, my daughter is in high school. I can make all the healthy gluten-free snacks for her that I want, but on a Friday night she may go straight to a friend’s house after school and be there for 24 hours. So she wouldn’t be eating my healthy snacks. How can we empower and educate our kids so they can make healthy choices when they are away from home?

Amie Valpone
Amie Valpone

AV: Explain to the kids that there are certain foods that come from a package. But keep it simple, ask them, does it grow in the ground? Or did it come from animals? The healthiest foods are not going to come out of a box.

AL: How can we indulge wisely without completely going off the health wagon?

AV: First, everyone should be eating a healthy breakfast. Eating healthy and … not starving. Other than that, let’s say your mom is making you your favorite gluten-free lasagna from when you were younger. It may not be the healthiest of things, but treat yourself to it. If you’re on vacation or your honeymoon or at a wedding, treat yourself a little bit, just don’t have it every day.

If you’re having a bad day, I always say treat yourself to a manicure or a pedicure or something not related to food. But sometimes other things don’t work. Sometimes we need some food. Figure out, for example, “If I get a craving in the middle of the night, what can I have? Oh, I love Enjoy Life Foods Dark Chocolate. I am going to keep a bag of it in the freezer with a bag of almonds, and when I have a craving or I want something sweet after dinner, instead of reaching for a box of processed gluten-free cookies, I am going to have some dark chocolate and almonds.”

AL: What is your favorite indulgence or splurge?

AV: I mix together organic almonds, organic coconut flakes, vegan dark chocolate chips and cinnamon for my treat.

AL: If the idea of changing everything about your gluten-free diet to make it healthier seems overwhelming, what are some suggestions for making some simple changes now?

AV: When you go to the food store, every week, just make sure you’re buying a vegetable for every day. Even if it’s something simple like arugula. It is filled with so many different vitamins. Just toss it in with your salad.

Or go to the store and buy a bag of raw almonds. You don’t have to abandon your comfort foods either. If you love mashed potatoes, great! Go get some sweet potatoes. If you’re fond of fries or mashed potatoes you can make them for yourself from the sweet potatoes, which are better for you. You don’t have to eat broccoli every day of the week. You’re going to go nuts! We all need to treat ourselves to a thing we enjoy. You like steak? Great! Go find a nice steak with a side of sweet potatoes or maybe sautéed or roasted mushrooms. It can even be frozen vegetables.

AL: So frozen vegetables are okay?

AV: Some people say frozen vegetables or fruit are unhealthy, but you know frozen is as good as fresh because they are flash frozen at peak. Whole Foods Market even has frozen quinoa. It’s so easy. You just take it out of the freezer and put it in a pot and serve it. It’s done!

AL: Produce can go bad so quickly. So it’s good to know frozen vegetables are good, too.

AV: If you find your fresh produce or other foods going bad, just stick them in a freezer bag and freeze it. Spinach, quinoa, gluten-free oatmeal, you can have pretty much anything in the freezer. Even Applegate turkey. I buy it in the deli packs and when I am travelling I just stick them in the freezer and eat them later.

AL: One of the biggest challenges with living gluten free is creating tasty recipes. How do you develop a healthy gluten-free recipe or incorporate healthy substitutions to a recipe and keep it from being a flop?

AV: You can always use unsweetened applesauce for all or most of the oil called for in a recipe. Pumpkin puree is also a good substitute for oil. Both are healthier options.

But overall, I would say don’t experiment with one-ingredient grains, like coconut or almond flour, unless you really know what you are doing. They are so expensive. And you can’t really bake a cake out of just almond flour. Well, actually you can, but you have to know what you are doing and it is very complicated. My best advice is to keep things simple. Stick with a gluten-free, all-purpose flour if you’re baking. Cooking doesn’t need to be complicated.

AL: To help make cooking healthier and an easier job, what is your favorite gadget in the kitchen?

AV: Absolutely my food processor. I have owned about 15 food processors, I am not kidding. When I was sick I could not digest food and I had to eat food made in a food processor for about five years. I have tried every food processor out there. The only one I like is KitchenAid™. It is so easy to clean and it is lightweight.

AL: Why would it be worth someone’s investment?

AV: It makes things so easy. Just take some poached chicken, add some basil, strawberries, salt and pepper, put it all into the food processor and you have a pâté for the week.

AL: What are some common mistakes people make when trying to make healthy gluten-free choices?

AV: Buying processed foods and not looking at the ingredients and not knowing what those ingredients mean. A lot of foods are genetically modified. A lot of food is filled with fillers and dyes. It might be gluten free, dairy free, soy free, sugar free, but what else is in it?

AL: What are two things everyone can do right now to make our gluten-free diet healthier?

AV: Cut down on processed foods and clean up your snacks. Instead of just buying snack food, eat something that you can recognize as one ingredient. If you sat down and made yourself a list of one-ingredient foods it would probably be about 20 pages long. It’s more than people think because it is every fruit, nut, vegetable, seed, meat … it’s insane!

AL: What are the two foods we should remove from our diets?

AV: Processed foods and non-organic foods. You should definitely be eating organic because if you’re not, you’re eating growth hormones and antibiotics.

AL: Organic foods can be expensive. What if someone has to pick their battles and only pick a few organic ingredients? Which ones would you recommend?

AV: You should buy organic foods from the “dirty dozen”. It is a list of the dirtiest fruits and vegetables. (See below.)

Amy Leger is Gluten-Free Living’s family editor, and she also frequently does Q&A interviews for the magazine. Her last interview was with Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a sponsor of the gluten-free labeling law.

Organic Options

The dirty dozen, the 12 foods with the highest level of pesticide residue. Consider buying organic.

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

The 12 foods least likely to be contaminated by pesticide. Buying organic is a lower priority.

  • Onions
  • Avocado
  • Sweet corn (frozen)
  • Pineapples
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Bananas
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Papaya

Amie’s Odd & Ends

Amie Valpone, who has a busy website (thehealthyapple.com), Facebook and Twitter accounts, says new ideas for healthy gluten-free eating are always “sprouting up.” She keeps a running list of new thoughts about healthier habits and alternatives, and calls them Odds & Ends. Here is a sample:

• Make a batch of quinoa, black rice or gluten-free oats on Sunday night to use throughout the entire week.

• Try making homemade “breadcrumbs” with nuts; use chia seeds and flax seeds, etc., for added nutrients.

• Use lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange zest to add flavor to desserts or roasted veggies.

• A little sea salt and freshly ground white pepper add flavor; use a pepper mill. It’s stronger in both aroma and flavor.

• Revive tired leafy greens in an ice bath to give a cold shock to their system.

• Use salted water when blanching veggies to unmask their full flavor and enhance their color.

• Add fresh woody herbs such as rosemary and thyme to infuse a dish at the beginning of the cooking process.