Gluten-free seems to be the latest sports nutrition buzzword. Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley that must be avoided by people with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder. Symptoms of celiac vary greatly and can range from digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas) to health problems such as anemia, stress fractures, infertility in both men and women, migraine headaches, canker sores, easy bruising of the skin, swelling of the hands and feet, and bone/joint pain. The person feels lousy. Yet, some athletes don't even realize they have celiac disease. They feel fine--until they experience iron-deficiency anemia or stress fractures due to poor absorption of iron, calcium, and vitamin D.
How common is celiac disease? More than we once thought. About 1 percent of the population (athletes included) has celiac and needs to avoid even traces of gluten. Up to 6 percent have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The symptoms are similar but without the autoimmune reactions that result in cancer and osteoporosis. No one is certain why celiac disease and gluten sensitivity is on the rise. One theory relates to changes in the composition of our gut bacteria.
How to Tell if You Are Gluten SensitiveIf you and others in your genetic family are plagued with niggling health issues (including those mentioned above), you should learn more about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Untreated celiac disease can lead to severe complications including cancer of the gut and osteoporosis. Two websites that offer abundant information include www.celiac.org and www.glutenfreediet.ca.
If you suspect you are gluten sensitive, don't self-impose a gluten-free diet without first talking with a doctor who specializes in celiac. You need to get your blood tested for specific antibodies and then, to confirm the diagnosis, an intestinal biopsy. Do not eliminate gluten before you get the blood tests, because absence of gluten in your diet can interfere with making the correct diagnosis. If you don't get properly tested, you might miss a correct diagnosis or other health problems, like Crohn's, an ulcer, or colon cancer. Plus, if undiagnosed, you might be less motivated to strictly follow a gluten-free diet for life.
If you are "simply" gluten-sensitive, your blood tests will report none of the elevated levels of antibodies that signal celiac disease, but you will feel unwell. Hence, if you have intestinal issues, you might want to try a gluten-free diet for a month or so regardless of the blood test results. One athlete plagued with muscle pain stopped eating wheat and her pains disappeared. She reported she simply "felt better." Others report they recover better and have less stiffness and joint pain with a gluten-free diet. This might be due to eliminating gluten, a placebo effect, or eating better overall (no cookies, pastries, junk food). Adhering to a gluten-free diet is challenging and expensive, so there's no need to self-inflict the limitations if you notice no benefits after a month of gluten-free eating.
Going Gluten-FreeSo what's a hungry athlete to eat if his/her favorite pasta, bagels, breads, and baked goods are off-limits? While a sports diet without pasta may seem like a day with no sunshine, rest assured, a plethora of gluten-free carbs can fuel your muscles. You can enjoy carb-rich rice in all forms (brown, white, basmati), corn in all forms (on the cob, cornmeal, grits), potato, sweet potato, lentils, kidney beans, hummus, quinoa, millet, and tapioca. Oats, if processed in a wheat-free plant, can also be safe.
Many fresh foods are naturally gluten-free. They include all plain fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, hard cheese, eggs, meats, fish, poultry, nuts, sunflower seeds, edamame, juice, and wine (but not beer). Just be aware that sauces, gravies, and seasoning mixes might contain gluten, as do marinades and soy sauce. Some gluten-free baked goods, pastas, and frozen meals are quite good; others might leave you wishing for something tastier. Two popular brands of gluten-free bread (commonly available at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's) are Udi's and Rudi's. Hint: They taste better when toasted.