Can you exclude all foods containing wheat, rye and barley from your diet, and still compete successfully in endurance sports events? The increasing number of athletes who are going gluten-free would seem to imply that this is the case. Gluten or specifically gliadin – part of gluten – is a protein found in these three common grains. This also includes avoiding oats that have not been certified as gluten-free, due to potential cross-contamination on farms growing wheat, rye or barley. People who have a diagnosis of the auto-immune condition coeliac disease have no choice but to eat a life-long gluten-free diet. The slightest ingestion of gluten inflames and damages their small intestine, resulting in malabsorption and potential health complications. It is estimated that one in a hundred people have coeliac disease, but it can take many years to obtain a diagnosis. Other people may have tested negative for coeliac, but find that they feel better on a gluten-free diet and experience an improvement in digestive health issues like diarrhoea, or possibly increased energy, clearer focus and better concentration, or even a reduction in joint discomfort. It is now recognised that a diagnosis of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity also exists1.
If, as an endurance athlete, you have made the decision to go gluten free or need to, following a diagnosis of coeliac disease, the area of your diet that will be most directly affected is your choice of starchy carbohydrate sources. Out go those traditional standbys of bread, pasta and porridge, for example, as well as most cakes, biscuits and pastries. You can still eat these foods, but your bread and pasta will be made of grains like rice and corn, and your oat-based foods will need to be certified gluten-free. Gluten-free baked goods should be eaten as occasional treats only – gluten free does not necessarily mean healthy! You will also need to stop drinking beer, which is made from barley, although gluten free beers are starting to be more widely available. You must check the labels on all packaged foods for sources of gluten. If it is present, it will be mentioned in the allergen box. Gluten is often found in unexpected forms, such as the wheat dextrose used to flavour some pre-cooked chicken breasts (cook your own) or the wheat used to make standard soya sauce (choose a tamari soya sauce instead). It is also common in packaged soups and sauces. You are likely to find yourself cooking more when following a gluten-free diet.
If you are avoiding gluten, you will need to work that bit harder than other athletes to get enough starchy carbs in your diet. It’s important not to rely too much on sugars for energy, and specially-made gluten free products like breads can be expensive. Here are some good choices:
- All forms of rice; try quick-releasing white rice prior to and during endurance events and training, but be sure to also include some brown rice in your diet to help you get enough fibre. Risotto makes a great pre-race meal in place of pasta and rice cakes work well on long rides. Sushi is a good lunch or snack choice. Pasta made from rice flour is also available.
- Potatoes, especially sweet potatoes, which are a good source of vitamin A. Bake, boil or mash your white potatoes. Sweet potatoes work well baked and eaten whole, cut into wedges and baked with some olive oil, or grated and mixed with some peanut butter into a cake before frying. You can eat also baked potatoes or mash during ultra-endurance events.
- Buckwheat: buy soba noodles (read the label carefully to make sure they are not made partly with wheat flour) or make pancakes with buckwheat flour. The latter works really well as a post-long run or ride brunch when topped with Greek yogurt and fruit, or scrambled eggs and spinach.
- Quinoa: actually a seed, quinoa is packed with protein as well as carbohydrate and fibre. Makes a great alternative to wheat-containing couscous or bulgur or to rice if you are looking for a change. Cook for c 12 minutes in vegetable stock (check it’s gluten free) with the lid on until the stock is absorbed. You can also buy quinoa flakes to make porridge.
- Certified gluten-free oats: these are now quite widely available and are used to make porridge oats, mueslis and oatcakes. You can also use them to make home-made energy bars (mix with dried fruit, ground nuts and honey, for example). Some commercial energy bars use gluten-free oats too, eg Trek bars.
- Corn tortillas: use to make lunchtime sandwich wraps or as part of a weekend breakfast with eggs, beans, tomato and avocado. Check the label to make sure that no wheat has been combined with the corn. Corn thins (similar to rice cakes) work well on long rides.
- Polenta: combine this fine or coarse ground corn meal with water to make a cake that can then be baked or fried, and used as an accompaniment to meat, fish or eggs. Works great with creamed mushrooms as a brunch dish.
- Other gluten-free grains: amaranth, millet, sorghum and teff. These are often contained in commercially available gluten-free breakfast cereal products. Be aware that spelt (an ancient form of wheat) does contain gluten.
So I hope you can see that it’s perfectly possible to have a diet appropriate for endurance sports if you need to be gluten free. But will changing to a gluten free diet have a positive effect on your performance? If you experienced digestive health issues while consuming gluten, removing it from your diet is likely to make you healthier and this in turn may make you a better athlete. But what’s the evidence that a gluten free diet is superior for performance? Contrary to what you might think, there isn’t really any. Research is currently sparse in this area, but one study which was published in December 2015 put 13 competitive endurance cyclists, who did not have coeliac disease, on both a gluten-containing diet and a gluten-free diet, with a 10 day wash out period between the two, and compared their performances after each diet in a time trial. There were no differences in performance. Nor were there any differences in measured markers of inflammation or intestinal damage, or in perceived wellbeing. It was a short term trial with a small sample size but it provides an interesting insight. 2
In summary, if you experience digestive health issues, it may be worth trialling a gluten free diet. But if you are symptom free, there’s no current evidence-based reason to expect an improvement in performance by excluding gluten.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
1Knut E.A. Lundin and Armin Alaedini. Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity. Gastrointest Endoscopy Clin N Am 22 (2012) 723–734
2 Lis D et al. No effects of a short-term gluten-free diet on performance in non-coeliac athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015. 47 (12): 2563-70.