Gluten Free diets: hidden secrets of top athletes!

Warning: this post contains important information that will change the way you think about your carbs. Put down your pret-a-manger sandwich and read on at your own risk!

With just three weeks left to go before my race in Australia, there really isn’t any time left for making mistakes (and believe this klutz, I’ve been known to make more than a few!). I’ve tried to get more sleep to help promote recovery, I’ve added extra time on to my stretching routine, and I’m starting to use a wobble board at work in the mornings (hopefully before my colleagues arrive) to increase my stability. I’ve even cut out jay-walking across busy London streets for fear of getting hit by errant black cabs. Okay, maybe I’m getting paranoid, but I’m not taking any chances!

The biggest change I’ve made recently, however, has been to my nutrition. Yeah, everyone knows nutrition is important, but I’ve learned over the past couple weeks just HOW important nutrition really is. Seriously. I mean, I’ve always tried to eat really healthily anyway, so I didn’t think there was much room for improvement. Just ask my sister – after we lived together for a year, she couldn’t stand the smell of cooked broccoli. And each time I come back home to visit my family, my father complains about the fact that an entire shelf of the fridge is taken up by spinach. I can’t look at the sight of red meat (bleh) and while I enjoy the occasional chocolate, I always make sure it is dark chocolate (for the antioxidants, right?). I never have deep-fried food and my alcohol consumption is pathetic. I’ve had two glasses of prosecco while writing this blog tonight and I’m already completely buzzed (on that note, I take no responsibility for anything I write from hereon…)

So what was there left to change?

Two weeks ago I went to see a neuromuscular specialist, Steve Bessant. Or, as I now like to call him, G-O-D. He completely revamped my nutrition and I’ve been so impressed with the results, that I’ve just got to fill you in! Call me a nutritional missionary.  Since Steve got me to make a few simple changes, I’ve had more energy, less pain, and my muscles are much more pliable. What’s the secret already???

Public Enemy #1


The Basics: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. It is the protein that provides nourishment to wheat during germination from seed to plant. Following a gluten-free diet means giving up bread, pizza, pastries, pasta, and cereals….and a number of foods containing additives such as thickeners, stabilisers and flavours (aka the “hidden” glutens).

The Rationale: Only a very small percentage of the population has a true allergy to gluten – this is called coeliac disease. When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, the lining of the walls of the small intestine become flattened and inflamed, which disrupts the digestion and absorption of nutrients.  Experts estimate that while just 1% of the population has a permanent intolerance to gluten, 15-20% of the population are demanding gluten-free products. However, there is a line of thinking that gluten can cause digestive problems amongst people who don’t necessarily meet the criteria of having a true allergy. The idea that gluten could be responsible for bloating, stiffness, and gastrointestinal issues — all which have a significantly negative impact on athletic performance — has been gaining popularity amongst athletes over the past few years. I thought it warranted a closer look.


The Evidence: It appears that the evidence is somewhat mixed. The Australian Institute of Sport declares that “[t]here is no advantage in avoiding gluten if you do not have coeliac disease or a related medical condition…Athletes who do not have coeliac disease will waste valuable effort learning all about this complex diet, which would be better spent on other aspects of good eating and hard training.” Powerbar’s website contains an article from Alex McDonald, MD, a medical doctor and professional triathlete, who cautions that “by being too restrictive in food intake, the [gluten-free] athlete may fall short of taking in adequate calories to support their activity, and the added expense of such products can put a good dent in the budget.” However, Dr. McDonald also acknowledges that in the end, it comes down to personal experience.


Despite these claims that going gluten-free will not reap any benefits in the absence of a diagnosis of intolerance, there is some strong evidence emerging amongst elite athletes that indicate otherwise. In 2008, Garmin’s pro cycling team declared they were going wheat-free during the Tour de France.  (Going wheat free isn’t as strict as gluten-free, but it does cut out the major irritants!). At first, this seemed crazy. For years, cyclists relied on pasta as their main source of carbs so many worried that without it, they wouldn’t be getting enough fuel to get them through the race. However, other carbs are just as effective as energy sources as wheat-based products, including rice, oats, corn and quinoa (a really yummy grain commonly found in South America).   After the team went gluten-free, the results were undeniable. Christian Vande Velde, the team leader, found that he had “all-around better digestion”, which was important because digestion was “the biggest thing in utilizing the energy I consume”. Another teammate found a definite correlation between going wheat-free and improvement in his performance. He felt his digestion was better, which allowed him to sleep better and recover faster.

The Details: Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how the heck can an endurance athlete cut out wheat and gluten? Maybe a pro cycling team can do it, but what about the rest of us who don’t have personal chefs at our disposal?? Well, fear not. With the amount of gluten-free products available out there, it actually isn’t as hard as you might think to go gluten-free. The trick is simply in learning the safe foods vs. the foods to be avoided. To help you out, I’ve included this chart:

Gluten-Free Foods

  • Rice: all types of rice
  • Pasta and Noodles: rice noodles, specialty gluten-free pasta
  • Breads: gluten-free breads
  • Cereals and grains: gluten-free cereals, corn breakfast cereals without malt extract
  • Fruit: fresh, frozen and canned (no thickeners added)
  • Vegetables: fresh, frozen and canned (no thickeners added), tofu
  • Soups: clear soups, soups thickened with gluten-free flours, soups without pasta
  • Dairy: fresh or powdered milk, cream plain cheese, yoghurt, ice cream (check the labels)
  • Snacks: plain popcorn, plain potato chips (check the labels)
  • Sauces: Tomato sauce, gluten-free gravy, balsamic vinegar
  • Drinks: Water, mineral water, soft drinks, tea, coffee, wine

Foods containing Gluten (to avoid!)

  • Pasta and noodles: wheat-based pasta and noodles
  • Breads: regular breads, rolls muffins
  • Cereals and grains: wheat-based cereals, porridge, cous cous, barley
  • Fruit: fruit mince, pie fillings
  • Vegetables: commercial veggies in sauce, processed or canned legumes
  • Soups: soups containing thickeners, barley or pasta
  • Dairy: artificial cream, cheese dips, yoghurt dips
  • Snacks: sweets, lollipops, filled chocolates, chocolate bars, pretzels, flavoured crisps
  • Sauces: commercial sauces, soy sauce, most stock cubes and gravy mixes
  • Drinks: coffee substitutes, milk flavourings, beer, hot chocolate

I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself what works, but all I can say is that I have more energy and I feel a heck of a lot better than I did a few weeks ago. The difference has really been noticeable. Running is an inherently inflammatory activity, and I figure I’ve got to do everything I can for my body to reduce inflammation when I’m not running. Cutting out wheat and gluten is just one simple way to reduce potential inflammation and give me a little edge.

Give it a shot – what have you got to lose??? (Other than your beloved morning pancakes….)

2 comments on “Gluten Free diets: hidden secrets of top athletes!

  1. Wow! Learning so much! Best of luck!!

  2. Pingback: Moonlight Challenge (50km) Race Report « Ultra Runner Girl

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