Gluten Free Athlete: How to Fuel on a Gluten Free Diet

A Guide to Gluten Free Diets for Young Athletes

*Please Note: This article is intended for guidance purposes only. We always recommend seeking professional medical advice if you have/ believe you have a food allergy or intolerance*

Gluten free diets are becoming increasingly popular, with many athletes self-diagnosing a gluten sensitivity or opting to remove gluten from their diet. There is a growing belief that gluten free diets are healthier than a conventional diet and have performance enhancing effects, despite little scientific evidence to support this [1]. However, for many athletes, avoiding gluten in the diet is a necessity and not a choice. We take a look at the key differences to answer the question ‘should young athletes avoid gluten?’.

Gluten Intolerance

Also called coeliac disease, is a digestive condition where gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes the body’s immune system to attack and damage the surface of the small intestines, meaning that nutrients from food cannot be absorbed efficiently [2]. This can lead to symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating or weight loss, as well as micronutrient deficiencies and fatigue [3]. It is one of the most common autoimmune diseases in Europe, with the rates increasing as awareness and diagnostic techniques improve. The only treatment for coeliac disease is eliminating gluten from the diet completely, which can pose a huge challenge for athletes, often requiring a complete lifestyle change.

Gluten Sensitivity

Although symptoms of gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease may be similar, the two conditions are actually different. Gluten sensitivity is not known to cause damage to the lining of the gut and there are questions as to whether it’s gluten itself or other components of the foods causing the issues [2]. FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo- Di- Mono-saccharides and Polyols) or other non-gluten components found in certain foods may be the cause of such sensitivities and as they are often eliminated from the diet when gluten containing foods are removed, it’s difficult to determine which is to blame. Gluten sensitivity still requires a lot of research, with no tests currently available for diagnosis. Because of this, many athletes self-diagnose the condition and begin avoiding gluten in the diet.

Athletes

There is increasing anecdotal perception that gluten free diets have an ergogenic and enhancing effect on athletic performance, however, recent scientific evidence suggests there is no improvement to athletes who are not gluten intolerant [1,4,5]. Eliminating all forms or wheat, rye and barley from the diet presents a huge challenge for athletes to eat enough (healthy) carbohydrates to fuel and refuel their body for intense athletic performance. Excluding grains from the diet can also lead to difficulties in meeting the calorie needs to provide enough energy for peak athletic performance [3], therefore, gluten free athletes need to pay particular attention to their diets and plan well. This is essential for away games, where the food environment may be unknown. Planning ahead is key here. Pack and prepare foods you know are gluten free to prevent last minute panics searching the shops for something to fuel your performance.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Gluten free diets can put athletes at risk of a number of nutritional deficiencies, both in those with diagnosed intolerances and those who eliminate gluten by choice. A combination of decreased absorption rates (in coeliac athletes) and often poor diet choice can increase the incidence of various nutritional and energy deficiencies, which can ultimately have a negative impact on sport and performance [6]. Particular attention should be paid to iron, calcium and vitamin D levels to reduce the risk of injury and illness associated with these deficiencies in athletes.

Gluten Free Carbohydrates

Good sources of carbohydrates for a gluten free athlete include [2,3]:

  • beans
  • rice
  • corn meal
  • corn flour
  • potatoes
  • lentils
  • quinoa
  • fresh fruits and vegetables

Alternatively, there’s also a growing range of gluten substitute foods, such as breads and pastas, now available to buy in the 'Free From' Sections of supermarkets. If you’re unsure as to whether a food contains gluten, it’s a good idea to read the nutrition label and check for allergens, as gluten may often be included in foods that you wouldn’t expect.  There’s also a Gluten Free Food Checker App available, allowing you to scan your shopping as you go if you’re unsure.

Because of the potential increased risks of macro and micronutrient deficiencies associated with gluten free diets, it is critical that any young athlete seeks professional medical advice before simply eliminating gluten from the diet. However, with careful planning and preparation, it is possible to fuel for athletic performance on a gluten free diet and achieve peak performance.

 

*Please Note: This article is intended for guidance purposes only. We always recommend seeking professional medical advice if you have/ believe you have a food allergy or intolerance*

 

References 

  1. Lis, D., Stellingwerff, T., Shing, C., Ahuja, K. and Fell, J. (2015). Exploring the Popularity, Experiences, and Beliefs Surrounding Gluten-Free Diets in Nonceliac Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 25(1), pp.37-45.
  2. Coeliac UK. (2019). Coeliac disease. [online] Available at: https://www.coeliac.org.uk/information-and-support/coeliac-disease/ [Accessed 24 Sep. 2019]
  3. Mancini, L., Trojian, T. and Mancini, A. (2011). Celiac Disease and the AthleteCurrent Sports Medicine Reports, 10(2), pp.105-108.
  4. Lis, D., Fell, J., Ahuja, K. and Kitic, C. (2016). Commercial Hype Versus Reality Our Current Scientific Understanding of Gluten and Athletic PerformanceCurrent Sports Medicine Reports:, 15(4), pp.262–268.
  5. LIS, D., STELLINGWERFF, T., KITIC, C., AHUJA, K. and FELL, J. (2015). No Effects of a Short-Term Gluten-free Diet on Performance in Nonceliac AthletesMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(12), pp.2563-2570.
  6. Cialdella-Kam, L., Kulpins, D. and Manore, M. (2016). Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, and Energy Restricted Diets in Female AthletesSports, 4(4), p.50.

 


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