Is Gluten Free (GF) appropriate for you? There are several professional athletes and pro sports teams that are endorsing a GF diet, making it easy to assume that amateur athletes should eat a GF diet as well. But you might want to think again.
A registered dietitian organizing the macro-nutrient intake for a pro athlete is different than amateur athletes purchasing GF foods thinking they will reap the same benefits. Pro teams are eating GF to avoid inflammation that could possibly arise from eating gluten-containing foods. For an event like the Tour de France, which consists of 21 consecutive days of racing, this is important because there is a lot of inflammation in the body due to the constant breakdown and trauma placed on muscle tissue. However, for the average athlete racing twice a month, or even two Ironman distance triathlons in a single year, restricting GF may not be as necessary because there is enough time to recover and rebuild in-between events.
In addition, if you are consuming a healthy diet consisting of Omega-3 from fish sources (supplements, if necessary), which decrease inflammation, your body should manage fine. Do not take this to mean you should increase your Omega-3 intake substantially if you are already consuming wild salmon, cod, halibut, or tuna 2-3 times per week. Egg yolks are also a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of DHA and Omega-6 fatty acids in the form of arachidonic acid. These two fatty acids contribute to high HDL levels, so don’t let the fear of cholesterol prevent you from eating eggs. Instead, eliminate your intake of trans and saturated fats (fast-food burgers and fries).
Have your diet analyzed before super-compensating with any vitamins or minerals. No one should change to a GF diet until they are successful on a non-GF diet. This means, your daily nutrition and racing/training nutrition should be dialed-in and perfected before you make a change. If you are not taking in the proper amount of calories and nutrients normally, trying to convert to a GF diet will be difficult. A client recently asked if he should only be eating GF foods, and my answer was no. Since he has not expressed any symptoms associated with gluten-intolerance or Celiac disease, nor has had any symptoms related to nutritional deficiencies, there is no indication that a GF diet is necessary. My advice to him was to remain faithful to his current eating habits, consuming varied complex carbohydrates and little refined sugar while maintaining his optimal weight.
We know a diet high in refined sugars and processed foods will not fuel athletes well. If someone stops eating bread, cake, and muffins made with white flour and gluten, they need to replace those carbohydrates, B-vitamins, folate, zinc, iron and fiber with other sources. Very often, GF foods are low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. For example, Food For Life Brown Rice Bread is low-fat but lacks calcium and iron and is low in fiber. Food for Life does make other breads that are not GF, and they are higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To compensate for missing vitamins and minerals, athletes should plan their meals and try to include these GF grains: 100% buckwheat, sweet potato, quinoa, millet, potato, non-gmo corn, or amaranth. Read labels carefully – most often buckwheat noodles or flour is mixed with whole wheat flour.
Going GF for the non-athlete can lead to weight loss due to the restriction of food options. If someone eliminates muffins, bread, and cake without replacing them with GF food, they are reducing their caloric intake. Beyond health reasons, a GF diet is popular for this simple reason. Just like any other restriction diet, you can lose weight.
In summary, if you are eating a diet with varied sources of complex carbohydrate, minimal refined and processed food, minimal sugar/simple carbohydrate (except during and after training), lots of vegetables and fiber, and have no nutritional deficiencies you do not need to spend the money on purchasing GF food. Simply eating well can prevent inflammation, gas, bloating, constipation and most symptoms that one has from eating gluten.
Confusing GI distress symptoms with many causes
Gluten intolerance is an adverse reaction after eating gluten. Symptoms are usually GI related, and are similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, and Crohn’s Disease. The difference between gluten intolerance and Celiac is that gluten intolerance does not cause long–term GI problems, whereas Celiac causes damage to the mucosal layer of the small intestine. Symptoms of gluten intolerance, though uncomfortable, will subside within hours or days. Another symptom associated with gluten intolerance is dermatitis herpetiformis. Dermatitis herpetiformis is an itchy, blistering skin disease that usually occurs on the elbows, knees and buttocks.
Celiac’s disease is an auto-immune reaction to gliadin, a gluten protein. This reaction causes the villi in the small intestine to ‘lie down’ instead of standing in their usual fingerlike projections. With the villi no longer standing and able to absorb nutrients, many people suffer from diarrhea, malabsorption and bloating. Some people diagnosed as having Celiac can also be diagnosed as iron-deficient and/or anemic.
Symptoms of gluten-intolerance are similar to that of having Candidasis, an overgrowth of yeast (Candida Albicans) in the body. This is most commonly presented as thrush in the mouth, athlete’s foot or vaginal yeast infections. However, a yeast overgrowth can be present in the body without these common outward signs. It can also manifest itself in inflammation, chronic aches and pains, fatigue, leaky-gut syndrome, and food allergies. Candida feeds on sugar, so if you eliminate sugar (muffins, white bread, sweets) from the diet, you will feel better. You can see how symptoms in the GI tract overlap regardless of the cause.
Be careful not to rush to assumptions when self-diagnosing GI symptoms and their cause. Look at an entire meal and not one specific food from that meal. For example, if you eat a meal high in saturated fat and dairy along with a gluten food item, your GI discomfort could be a combination of the entire meal. Track your food intake and note any symptoms keeping in mind that symptoms may take more than a day to present themselves. In addition, note your stress levels and general lifestyle changes. Stress manifests itself in many ways and our bodies’ reaction to it changes as we age.
Trismarter has worked with several athletes with Celiac disease, and who also have a combination of wheat, corn, and dairy allergies. We work with clients to simplify the overwhelming process of figuring out which foods to eat and when.