Endurance athletes, journalists, bloggers and nutritionists met recently in Boulder for the first ever Gluten-Free Athlete Summit hosted by Udi’s Gluten Free. During the summit, guests learned what it takes to be a healthful gluten-free athlete, as well as how and why this eating style has been adopted by some of the world’s best endurance athletes.
Top long-course triathlete Timothy O’Donnell (known in the triathlete circuit as T.O.) spoke about his transition from being a donut-craving, carbo-loading athlete to one who trains and competes while living a gluten-free lifestyle. Guests at the summit also heard how Lauren Goss, a decorated 70.3 distance triathlete, learned about the benefits of gluten-free eating and incorporated the diet into her training plan. Neither T.O. nor Lauren suffer from celiac disease, but both report having less gastrointestinal issues during and after training when they switched to eating exclusively gluten free.
The transition to a gluten-free diet can be difficult for anyone—let alone an athlete who relies on large quantities of carbohydrates to fuel them through long-distance running, biking, swimming and other sports. So we asked registered dietitian-nutritionist Constance Roark, MBA, MS, RDN, one of the Summit guest speakers, to help explain some things that gluten-free athletes need to watch out for.
Constance outlined four nutritional concerns athletes should be aware of when moving toward a gluten-free lifestyle:
1. Issue: Getting adequate energy and carbohydrates.
Eating enough energy-dense foods—especially carbohydrate-rich foods—is essential for fueling people through life and replenishing glycogen stores. Gluten-free does not mean carbohydrate-free. Getting enough energy can be a challenge, especially for endurance athletes. Some healthful gluten-free, carb-dense options are starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin, squash and yams.
Gluten-free grains and legumes, such as rice, quinoa, millet, beans, lentils and peas, are also carbohydrate sources, as are gluten-free products like bread, muffins and bagels. Remember to include a combination of complex and refined carbohydrates, as they serve different purposes during training. And when traveling for training or an event, also bring your own gluten-free food options, as you can’t be sure the country or venue will have gluten-free foods for you.
2. Issue: Potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Nutrient deficiencies can occur either because of poor absorption (particularly in individuals with celiac disease) or due to a highly restricted diet and/or food intake. Eat a variety of gluten-free foods from all food groups to help ensure you intake of a variety of nutrients. Some nutrients that gluten-free eaters are sometimes low on include the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B12 and folic acid), which are critical for energy metabolism—also, calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for bone health. Low Vitamin D may also be associated with poor immunity and glucose regulation.
Adequate iron intake to aid in the body’s oxygen transport is alslo important, particularly for female athletes of childbearing age. If you suspect you’re low in any nutrients or don’t eat a well-rounded diet, consider taking a multivitamin supplement that includes minerals.
3. Issue: Not getting enough fiber.
Often, fiber intake can be insufficient in gluten-free diets when traditional sources of whole grains are eliminated. Fiber is important for digestion regularity and helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which is related to a plethora of body functions and immunity.
Get fiber instead from fruits, vegetables and beans, which are all naturally gluten-free, as well as from gluten-free grains like oats, buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth and wild rice.
4. Issue: Avoiding inflammation.
Uncontrolled and untreated chronic health issues, such as celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, can contribute to inflammation inside the body—and for athletes, that’s in addition to the natural inflammation that occurs with exercise. It’s important to eat enough gluten-free foods that contain antioxidant vitamins (vitamins A, C and E) as well as omega-3s, and it's always ideal to seek these from natural food sources. Some antioxidant-rich choices are beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish and seafood and dark chocolate.
Gluten-Free Athlete Q&A with Constance Roark, MBA, MS, RDN
DL: Why do you believe some athletes choose to go gluten-free?
CR: I don't believe there is a single answer to this question. For some, eating gluten free may not be a choice because they've been diagnosed with a gluten-related condition. For others, if they are having GI distress or other symptoms that interfere with their ability to perform, their experience may lead them to uncover a gluten-related issue they didn't realize that they had before.
But for many, eating gluten-free is perceived to enhance performance even if they have not been diagnosed with a gluten-related condition. In this case—assuming a gluten-related condition has been ruled out—it becomes a matter of personal choice. One can have a successful athletic career following a gluten-free lifestyle as long as they are ensuring they eat a well-balanced diet (see the 4 issues listed on the previous page) and are finding nutritious sources of gluten-free alternatives.
DL: Does gluten-free eating give athletes a competitive edge?
CR: The current evidence does not suggest that a gluten-free diet in and of itself provides a competitive edge. However, if someone has a gluten-related condition that is untreated, it can potentially affect how they feel and ultimately how they perform. If you feel bad, you likely will not be able to perform at your best. So correcting this can lead to better outcomes. In general, if you feel well, you do well.
DL: What are some good energy-dense, gluten-free food choices for athletes?
CR: Choose whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet and teff. Eat starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and corn. And other healthful gluten-free foods include fruits, lean protein, beans, nuts and seeds.