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Gluten vs Performance

There is a debate in the sports world about if eliminating gluten from your diet has a positive effect on performance. This debate is quite a shift, particularly in endurance athletes, from the carb-loading culture, which I have known since the start of my running career.

Gluten Free Meal

So why this shift?

For the first part of human evolution, we were gluten-free. Gluten entered our diets only about 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began domesticating crops. As a result, our bodies don’t contain the digestive enzymes to break gluten down. This has lead to people not being able to digest it properly.

Some of the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance are unexplained aches, fatigue, headaches, joint or muscle pain, bloating and digestion problems. Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is a condition, which has been gaining recognition as a contributing factor in many health issues. New evidence suggests that as many as 1 in 10 people are gluten sensitive, or gluten intolerant. Still, most people can handle it without a catch.

Gluten and endurance athletes..

So the rationale behind why many athletes follow gluten-free diets is basically to ease unappealing digestive symptoms during competition. Improved digestion leads to improved absorption of nutrients, which can then translate into improved performance.

The advantages shown by following a gluten free diet are:

1. When gluten is removed, the body’s digestion system can rest and absorption can be restored. The body can then function at optimal levels and repair muscles more efficiently.
2. The low sugar effect that results from intense exercise is minimized.
3. A gluten-free diet helps to maintain a stable blood sugar level during exercise, which is optimal for an increase in muscle strength and stamina.

All these advantages have the potential to help with athletic performance but despite the claims that gluten-free eating is good for exercise performance, no published experimental evidence supports that it is beneficial. Therefore as a nutritionist I cannot recommend that athletes go gluten free unless for obvious reasons you have been diagnosed by a medical professional as gluten intolerant or having celiac disease.

The rest of this blog will focus on those athletes that are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease

So what do you eat if you are a diagnosed gluten intolerant/celiac disease?

Whether you are an elite or a recreational athlete, your diet typically relies on adequate carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are the most important sources of fuel for sporting activities and the timing and type of carbohydrate consumed is essential – 50-60% of energy should come from carbohydrates. If you train on a regular basis, you need to make sure that you eat enough carbohydrates to avoid fatigue and reduced performance. The majority of carbohydrate is derived from the gluten but when these foods are eliminated from the diet, there is a chance that an athlete may not be able to refuel correctly, leading to deficiency in important nutrients such as B-vitamins, iron and fiber.

Unfortunately, those diagnosed with celiac disease/gluten intolerance are unable to eat any items that contain gluten/wheat. They can still enjoy a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes and most dairy products. Such ingredients are naturally gluten-free, and safe for individuals who do not have allergies to these respective food groups. In order to maximize the health and nutritional benefits of going gluten-free, you should adopt a diet filled with a variety of naturally gluten-free foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, as well as gluten-free grains.

Eating the right amounts and types of food before undertaking exercise or an event is essential to make sure your body has enough energy and can perform well. Here are a few ideas to make sure you are eating the right foods before your training/competition.

A meal should be eaten two to three hours before exercise.

Examples of good pre exercise meals include:
●  A Gluten-free porridge and a banana
● Gluten-free cereal with gluten-free toast and jam
● Gluten-free pasta with a tomato-based sauce with meat, fish or beans
● Baked potato with cheese, meat or beans
● Rice with chicken or salmon and vegetables
Around an hour before training/undertaking exercise you should have a pre exercise snack with a drink, for example:
● Banana
● Yoghurt with fresh fruit
● Fruit and milk or a fruit and yoghurt smoothie
● Gluten-free cereal bar*
● A handful of gluten-free breakfast cereal*
● Rice cakes*

After doing exercise, your body muscle glycogen levels will be depleted and so need to be replenished with foods high in carbohydrate. Re-fuelling post exercise is essential to reduce fatigue and enhance your future performance. It should begin as soon as possible after exercise.

Here are a few ideas to make sure you are eating the right foods after your training/competition:
● Fruit yoghurt*
● Gluten-free cereal bars*
● Gluten-free toast* with baked beans*
● A Gluten-free tuna salad sandwich*.
● A few dates with some shredded chicken breast
● Sliced pineapple with a soft-boiled six-minute egg

I have put together 5 easy tips for those living without gluten to put in place to gain the most from your diet:

1. Emphasize the foods that are naturally gluten-free, e.g. vegetables, fruits, legumes, diary and meat.
2. Read food labels, ‘wheat’ must be on the food label if wheat is used in the food. If you are unsure about a products’ ingredients avoid it.
3. Look for ‘GLUTEN FREE” clearly labeled on the packaging. If it is labeled certified gluten-free, then it is safe.
4. Use gluten-free substitutes in place of gluten-containing foods. E.g. gluten free pasta.
5. Remember, gluten-free meals can be just as delicious and healthy too. Try out new recipes to see what works and what doesn’t. Life doesn’t have to stop because you cant eat the foods you used to enjoy. There are still many delicious foods out there that are gluten free.

If you have any issues with choosing gluten free foods around your training don’t hesitate to contact me on nutrition@nztrailrun.co.nz.


One Response

  1. Karen

    Wow a great read thanks.
    I have Coeliac Disease.I train,im a runner