A number of professional triathletes, including Simon Whitfield, Tim O’Donnell, Tyler Stewart, Heather Wurtele and Luke McKenzie, have experienced health and performance benefits from a gluten-free diet. Does this rise in gluten-free eating suggest that athletes are more vulnerable to gluten sensitivity? Or does this simply represent a growing awareness of food intolerance throughout the population?
With celiac disease (a more extreme case of gluten intolerance), the intestines not only have a decreased ability to absorb nutrients, but the gut becomes permeable, allowing food particles into the bloodstream and triggering an inflammatory response. However, you can be gluten-intolerant without having celiac disease. Even without a positive diagnosis or intestinal damage, gluten sensitivity is becoming more widely recognized, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe throughout the entire body (see below for symptoms).
Athletes tend to face some extra concerns when it comes to gluten sensitivity. It is known that the gut becomes more permeable during intense exercise. If this is coupled with an underlying intolerance to gluten or other components of grains, then the symptoms may be compounded.
If you decide to go gluten-free, don’t worry—contrary to some thinking, you won’t be missing out on the carbs you need for training. You can still eat all of your favorite fruits and vegetables. In addition, starches such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash are great gluten-free, nutrient-dense options. A good pre-race dinner could consist of spaghetti using rice noodles or salmon with roasted pumpkin or mashed sweet potatoes.
When you are shifting up a gear in intensity for training efforts and for races, something more calorie-dense is required for immediate energy—this is where carbohydrate-concentrated sports drinks and gels/bars are a huge benefit. There are some commercially available gluten-free and even grain-free nutrition bars (check out Larabars, Clif C Bars, Bonk Breaker Bars and Picky Bars, among an ever-expanding list), plus most sports drinks and gels are gluten-free. Always check labels though.
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How do I know if I should go gluten-free?
If you’re dealing with gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, cramps, constipation, bloating, gas, etc.), you may have a gluten intolerance. Gluten cannot take all the blame though, as many of these symptoms may also be signs of other food intolerances or conditions.
The most practical way to discover gluten sensitivity is to eliminate it from your diet for several weeks and see how you feel and perform. Don’t just reduce your intake; avoid it altogether. Some people find they feel better when they eliminate gluten even if they don’t have a diagnosed intolerance. Because gluten sensitivity is linked to many health conditions, you might be surprised to find you feel and perform much better. If you noticed a significant change, you may want to get tested for celiac disease. Check with your doctor or nutritionist to see which test is right for you.
Pip Taylor is a professional triathlete, a sports nutritionist and is currently completing her master’s degree in dietetics. She also offers personalized nutrition services for individuals, groups and clubs. Visit Piptaylor.com, or follow her on Twitter: @PipTaylorRacing.