There’s a reason some of the world’s most elite athletes—from world champion triathlete Timothy O’Donnell to tennis dynamo Novak Djokovic—are transitioning to a gluten-free diet. Whether they’re forced to because they suffer from celiac disease—like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees—or because they simply believe it can reduce digestive problems during physical exertion and cut down on inflammation, making the switch to gluten-free is becoming a real trend among athletes these days.
Which is great news for gluten-free folks! Because, whether you have celiac disease, a gluten allergy or sensitivity, or you just prefer to eliminate glutenous foods as a lifestyle choice, the success stories of these elite athletes prove that it’s not only possible to survive as an athlete on a gluten-free diet, but also to thrive.
Whether you’re just switching over to a GF diet or you’ve been GF for a while and are just beginning to ramp up your fitness regimen, here are some beginner tips that will help you hit your athletic goals without the aid of gluten.
Gluten at a Glance
What is gluten, anyway? Does eliminating it really cut out important energizing calories or nutrients? In short, no. Gluten is more or less just a mix of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye that causes the sticky, glue-like elasticity in doughy foods. (You should be aware that small amounts of gluten can also appear in oats that were grown in fields where wheat was previously grown. To ensure you’re getting gluten-free oats, look for brands that follow protocols to avoid cross-contamination.)
An important thing to remember is that gluten doesn’t provide energy; it’s the carb-rich foods loved by athletes that contain gluten that do. We’re talking pasta, pizza, bread, beer, and more—basically, all the staples that endurance athletes swear by for pre-workout fuel and post-workout indulging.
The reason these types of foods have traditionally been top of the athlete’s food chain, so to speak, is because of how efficient they are at delivering the energizing goods. Take a bagel versus a banana, for example. According to the USDA, the bagel is going to give you about 245 calories and 48 grams of fast-burning carbohydrate fuel in one serving; the banana is only going to give you 105 calories and 27 grams of carbs. Given the choice between the two, when you’re pressed for time and about to embark on a run or a ride that requires quick, fast-burning energy, it’s pretty obvious what most athletes would choose.
What to Watch Out For
The biggest thing GF athletes need to consider when it comes to getting adequate energy from their food is whether they’re getting enough calories and large enough quantities of carbohydrates to fuel them through endurance activities.
Let’s look at a 165-pound male marathon runner, for example. If he were to run a three-and-a-half hour marathon, that would require him to burn about 3,269 calories. Unless he’s got the appetite of an obese baboon, he’s probably not going to get those calories from gorging himself on 32 bananas! Instead, he’ll need to make a concentrated effort to ensure he’s consuming enough calories from a variety of different food sources.
In addition to calorie intake, GF athletes also need to get creative about their carbohydrate consumption.
Carbs are the kingpin macronutrients for athletic endeavors. Long distance runners typically have about 60% of their diets coming from carbs. (If you’re an elite Kenyan marathoner, that percentage actually climbs closer to around 75-78%, according to some studies.) Carbs are the body’s main source of fuel when exercising because they’re essential for replenishing glycogen in the body, and glycogen is what’s responsible for storing, processing, and converting glucose into energy.
For gluten-free athletes, getting enough carbs is challenging because it isn’t as simple as scarfing down a bowl of bolognese or a platter of assorted pastries. It requires much more intentional awareness about the amount, and types, of carbs you’re putting into your body. Some healthy gluten-free foods that are dense in carbs are root vegetables (like potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots), starchy vegetables (like broccoli, kale, and peppers), and grains and legumes (like rice, quinoa, lentils, and peas).
A Well-Balanced Diet
Of course, carbs and calories only tell part of the story. That bagel from earlier may have had more carbs and calories than the banana, but the banana has about three times as much potassium, which is a mineral any athlete will tell you is one of the most important weapons for combatting a cramp.
Biologically speaking, food consumption and energy output is as simple as it is complex. Like a car needs gas, the body needs calories. But more than this, your car doesn’t just start as soon as you fill it with gas. It needs the right amount of air and gas intake as well as compression and a spark to generate combustion, and from combustion you get motion. The human body needs a similarly multi-faceted mix of nutritional combinations to ensure it’s firing on all cylinders.
What’s really important is having a diversified diet of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Carbs are great for quick-burning energy, especially before or during exercise. But, protein is great for muscle recovery and growth, and fats offer long-lasting energy supplies and help cut down on inflammation. Additionally, minerals like potassium curb the effect of sodium on the body, while vitamins like B-12 help convert food into glucose energy.
In fact, this is probably where the gluten-free diet shines the most. Ask any GF athlete, and they’ll tell you: one of the most annoying aspects of being gluten-free is having to scrutinize every single food label in search of those pesky little glue-like proteins in the ingredients. But funny enough, it’s actually this level of compulsive food consciousness and due diligence that ends up being the gluten-free diet’s greatest strength.
As a gluten-free athlete, you’re no longer able to just stuff your face with processed foods like pizza and beer with the safety net of knowing you’ll burn off those carbs on your athletic ventures. Instead, you need to replace those calories with healthier whole foods like fruits and vegetables. And that’s where many of the benefits of the GF diet come from and why a lot of nutritionists are encouraging pro athletes to make the switch—not for the elimination of gluten itself, but for the inclusion of a more balanced, more nutrient and vitamin-dense diet.
What Are Some Good Energy-Dense, Gluten-Free Food Choices for Athletes?
In general, a great gluten-free, energy-dense diet will consist of a wide mix of whole foods that have limited ingredients and that are easy to pronounce.
For carbs, starchy vegetables are the ticket. Think potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, corn, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fruits are also great for quick glucose boosts, and other healthy options include whole grains, such as rice, quinoa, and millet. For protein, beans, lean meats, and fish are packed with muscle-building nutrients. And for fats, opt for avocados, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.
A few additional tips:
Oatmeal is a great breakfast option for athletes, especially on race day. It keeps you feeling satiated for long periods of time, has enough calories and carbs to keep you moving, and it’s easy to add maple syrup and butter for an extra energizing boost on race day.
If you’re traveling for an endurance event or race, be sure to pack your own gluten-free food options, as you can’t be sure the event will have gluten-free foods for you.
Also, be sure to get enough fiber. Some GF diets have insufficient fiber intake due to whole grains like wheat and barley being eliminated. But, if you’re incorporating a healthy mix of the above-mentioned fruits and vegetables, fiber intake shouldn’t be an issue.
Written by Ry Glover