How Athletes with Celiac Disease Can Eat Healthy and Stay Gluten-Free

Trying to stay gluten-free while maintaining the nutrition you need for elite training? Check out this guide for the gluten-free athlete.

Celiac Disease

If you've been diagnosed with celiac disease, you are probably well aware of how stressful and overwhelming it can be to eat healthy and stay gluten-free. Celia disease forces major changes in your life, and without proper guidance and support, it can adversely affect your performance on the field.

Athletes with celiac disease have to be especially careful with their food choices to meet their protein, healthy fat and carbohydrate goals to insure sufficient energy for peak athletic performance. Exposure to gluten can worsen the disease and lead to poor athletic performance. Here are some strategies to help ease you into a gluten-free diet.

Food Labeling and Preparation

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is also found in starches and binders in many processed foods, including medicines and vitamins. Since so many common foods contain gluten, it's critical to gather family support to ensure that clear labeling is enforced in the kitchen at home. This is especially important when there are doubles of foods like flour, pasta and bread. For easy identification, mark gluten-free products with colored labels and store them higher up on the shelves. To avoid confusion and save money, try to buy gluten-free versions of stocks, sauces, dressings and other cooking staples that often contain gluten.

Food preparation can be notorious for cross-contamination. Enforce a "no double-dipping" rule with spreads like jams, peanut butter and dips, because it's very easy for crumbs to contaminate a jar. Use a toaster oven or toast-it-all bags instead of a toaster, since toasters collect crumbs more easily. If you happen to be preparing both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods, always prepare the gluten-free foods first. Remember to wash your utensils thoroughly with hot soapy water after use.

Shopping and Cooking

When you shop, reading labels is crucial to maintaining a strict gluten-free diet. Manufacturers are required to display warning labels and to list wheat, but not gluten, on their ingredients list. Gluten may appear in triticale, malt, malt flavoring, malt vinegar and other wheat, barley or rye derivatives, so make sure you check the label every time you shop for ingredients that may contain gluten. Websites like Celiac Disease Foundation, Canadian Celiac Association, Coeliac UK and Coeliac Australia contain a wealth of resources on where to buy gluten-free products. Some organizations, like GFreeConnect, offer their members gluten-free products to sample and inform them of new products.

Beyond safety concerns, educating yourself about fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and lean proteins at the grocery stores and food markets is the key to eating a healthy, gluten-free diet. Learn to cook with alternative grains and starches like taro, tapioca, quinoa, buckwheat, armanath, millet, teff and green banana flour. This will help ensure that you meet your carbohydrate requirements while enjoying varied meals. Gluten-free recipes can be easily found online.

Speaking Out

Don't be embarrassed to notify your athletic trainers, coaches and teammates about your situation and the importance of a gluten-free diet for normalizing your training. Consume only gluten-free pre- and post-workout meals. Educate your teammates about how easy it is for gluten-free food choices to get cross-contaminated through contact with gluten-containing foods when sharing meals. If you reside on campus, be sure to inform your institution's administrator as well as the catering staff so that gluten-free options can be prepared and set aside for you in the dining hall. Conveying your message about your eating may seem difficult, so practice it with family members and close friends who are unfamiliar with your diet.

Planning Ahead and Traveling

When you are on a strict gluten-free diet, traveling and team meals can be tricky. Eating out and traveling on planes and trains increase the risk of cross-contamination and hidden ingredients. Planning ahead so that gluten-free options are available is crucial to maintaining health and peak athletic performance. Most airlines offer gluten-free options when you book in advance. Consult your sports dietitian before heading overseas, since there are differences in food labeling laws among various countries. Your dietitian can recommend where to eat and what foods to include in your travel itinerary. In addition, you may find it valuable to bring a set of dining cards with translations of your gluten-free needs into the language of the country you are visiting. Such dining cards are provided by Celiebo—or you can download the Gluten Free Restaurant Cards app for free. The cards should clearly state what celiac disease is and the foods, ingredients, and food preparations that affected individuals must avoid.

In case of emergencies during travel, always carry your own snacks (and even condiments). When in doubt about available food choices, stick with simple items like baked potato, steamed rice, fresh salads and unflavored roasts.

Gluten-Free for All?

Although it's critical for people with celiac disease to eat healthy on a gluten-free diet, going gluten-free otherwise has no added value and is unnecessary. Nevertheless, due to the popularity of gluten-free living—fueled by celebrities being vocal about losing weight and feeling better—many athletes are now adopting gluten-free diets as part of their nutrition plans. Without proper advice and management, however, such diets can be unhealthy and detrimental to athletic performance. Consult a board certified or accredited sports dietitian before switching to a gluten-free diet to ensure you are eating healthy and meeting your nutritional requirements.

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