Author: Julia Stumpf
In recent years, the number of individuals affected by celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity has risen drastically. For an athlete with high energy needs, being diagnosed in one of these categories can be extremely intimidating. As a college lacrosse player prescribed a gluten-free diet, I immediately worried that this restriction would negatively impact my performance. However, with the help of my background in nutrition and some simple swaps, I found that I was able to meet my energy needs, and to my surprise, I felt even better since my gastrointestinal distress had significantly improved. I’ll be sharing when this diet is necessary, the challenges that come with adopting it, and all of my tried and true solutions! For additional information for gluten free athletes meeting nutrient needs in college, see my post on lacrosse nutrition, where I take you through what I ate on a typical day of training!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a combination of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, both of which are found in the endosperm (main inner component) of wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is the protein responsible for nourishing the wheat during germination from seed to plant. While many have heard of the term “gluten-free” as a health trend, it is actually only intended for individuals who are truly intolerant to it, such as those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. However, for individuals who don’t have celiac or a gluten intolerance, removing gluten from the diet provides no health benefits, and in some cases it may actually cause deficiencies in vital nutrients, such as B-vitamins, iron, fiber and more.
Challenges for Gluten Free Athletes
In the case of celiac disease, gluten consumption provokes an immune response which causes damage to the small intestine, preventing absorption of vital nutrients. In the case of individuals who have developed an intolerance, they are not able to digest these proteins properly, so similarly, they typically experience gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms after consuming gluten. While celiac is a lifelong autoimmune disorder and gluten intolerance is a sensitivity, both can be managed by following a gluten-free diet. However, as mentioned previously, a gluten-free diet should only be adopted if medically necessary. Although some individuals who don’t have celiac or gluten intolerance may report feeling better after going gluten-free, it is often because they made a drastic shift from a previous diet high in refined, low-fiber carbohydrates, which can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms and blood sugar spikes.
For athletes who were recently diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, transitioning to a gluten-free diet can be challenging. As an athlete, your diet heavily relies on carbohydrates for maintaining energy levels, preventing fatigue, and refueling, and many carbohydrate rich foods are derived from gluten containing grains. Hence, the elimination of these familiar items can create various nutritional deficiencies, drastically impacting performance and recovery. However, by making simple, nutrient dense swaps, gluten free athletes can absolutely obtain all of their needs.
Despite the spike in the gluten-free market over the past few years, these certified products are by no means healthier or less processed than their gluten containing counterparts. Instead, gluten free athletes should look to consume minimally processed, whole foods which are naturally gluten-free, to keep nutrient density high and ensure they are receiving adequate fiber, vitamins, and minerals along with their carbohydrates.
My Favorite Items as a Gluten Free Athlete
There are actually an abundance of naturally gluten-free, nutrient-dense foods! Many whole grains, such as sorghum, millet, rice, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, quinoa, corn, and oats, do not contain gluten. Furthermore, vegetables, including starchy potatoes and sweet potatoes, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, beans/lentils, nuts, seeds and oils are all naturally gluten-free. However, the most challenging part for me as an athlete with high energy needs was consuming enough gluten-free carbohydrates. Since going gluten-free, I’ve found the following items to be staple carbohydrates in my diet.
Oatmeal has become one of my breakfast staples thanks to its slow digesting nature, which provides a sustained release of energy over time. When transitioning to a gluten free diet, it’s easy to unintentionally restrict carbohydrates, which can lead to a lack of fiber and essential vitamins and nutrients. This is what makes oatmeal a wonderful whole grain addition, as it is not only high in complex carbohydrates, but it also has a high soluble fiber content. It also has various nutrients that aid in performance, such as B vitamins, iron and magnesium. In order to make a balanced breakfast, oats can be topped with fruit, nuts, seeds, and more. Just make sure to choose certified gluten-free oats to avoid the risk of cross-contamination during processing, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. Read more about gluten-free labeling here.
- Potatoes & Sweet potatoes
In addition to carbohydrates, starchy vegetables also provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and water, which are all essential for energy, hydration, proper digestion and recovery. In particular, white potatoes contain even higher levels of potassium than bananas, which is crucial for athletes to maintain proper fluid balance and optimal muscle contraction. Potatoes and sweet potatoes of all colors are excellent alongside non-starchy vegetables and protein in a meal, or my personal favorite – a baked sweet potato topped with nut butter as a quick snack!
While I often neglected to eat quinoa before going gluten free, I now always have a batch of it prepared in my fridge. Quinoa is a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids necessary for muscle building and recovery. It contains twice as much protein (~8g per cup) as rice, making it a great pre or post workout option at meals for athletes. Furthermore, quinoa is also rich in a variety of performance-supporting micronutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. Throw it in salads, soups, or grain bowls for an added boost of whole grains and plant protein!
- Whole Grain Rice
Rice is a fairly low cost carbohydrate that is compatible with many meals. I usually opt for brown or wild rice as these varieties pack more vitamins, minerals and fiber compared to white rice, allowing for a slower release of energy overtime. However, white rice may be great for a pre-workout meal close to practice or when carb-loading before your main competition of the season. For convenience, I prepare a few servings to store in the fridge for the week. However, white rice can also be purchased as precooked packages at the grocery store! Once again, be sure the package identifies that it does not contain gluten.
- Beans & Lentils
Beans and lentils are natural sources of both protein and carbohydrates, making them another great option for post-workout fueling. Also, they tend to be high in essential nutrients for athletes like iron, calcium, potassium, and B vitamins. Iron is especially important for athletes who are at greater risk for deficiency or anemia due to higher activity demands, as it allows for oxygen to be transported into the muscles, thus enhancing muscle recovery and preventing fatigue. These foods can be a helpful addition to a gluten- free athlete’s diet since they miss out on the iron usually available in wheat and other gluten- containing grains.
- Rice or Bean Pastas
These alternative pastas are beneficial for all athletes, as they carry the same nutrient profile of beans and rice mentioned above with the added convenience of being in pasta form. I will substitute it for regular pasta in recipes or occasionally pair it with pesto or marinara sauce for a quick and easy meal!
While I typically consume fruit paired with some protein and fat throughout the day, I like to have some fruit and nut butter 30-90 minutes before training. Fruit alone makes for the perfect fuel ~15 minutes before your workout, due to its high carbohydrate content and easy digestibility, allowing for the immediate release of energy. Even dried fruits like dates and raisins, which are often overlooked, can pack a significant amount of energy to carry you throughout your training sessions. Ultimately, fruits are high in various vitamins and minerals and should be a staple in all athletes’ diets.
Nutrient-Dense Gluten Free Food Swaps
For gluten free athletes who are new to the diet, look to meet with your campus dietitian so that they are aware of safe options. Some colleges now offer allergen- friendly stations, where they avoid using the top 8 allergens, including gluten. In addition to this, many colleges also offer pre-packaged gluten free items to avoid cross contamination within the dining hall. Whether you are preparing your meals or eating out, there are a wide variety of easy swaps that you can make while still prioritizing nutrient density to ensure you are receiving adequate nutrients.
All Purpose or Wheat Flours → Oat Flour, Rice Flour, Almond Flour, etc
Whole Wheat Pasta → Bean Pasta (Chickpea, Lentil Pasta), Vegetable Pasta (Spaghetti Squash, Zucchini noodles)
Soy Sauce → Coconut Aminos
Wheat Tortilla → Corn Tortilla
Wheat pancakes → Homemade Buckwheat or Oat Flour Pancakes
Breadcrumbs → Almond Meal
Couscous or Orzo → Rice, Quinoa
Best Store-Bought Gluten Free Items
- Energy bars: GoMacro bar, RX bar, Core bar, Perfect bar, Kind bar, Larabar
- Crackers: Flackers, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Simple Mills Crackers
- Bread: Food for Life Gluten-Free English Muffins, Canyon Bakehouse Whole Grain Bread
- Pasta: Banza Chickpea Pasta, Jovial Brown Rice Pasta, Ancient Harvest Pasta
- Flour: Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free 1 to 1 Baking Flour, Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Flour
- Tortillas: Food for Life Brown Rice Tortillas, Siete Grain-Free Tortillas (Chickpea, Almond, Cassava, etc.)
- Pancake Mix: Birch Benders Gluten-Free or Paleo Pancake & Waffle Mix
Julia is a former collegiate lacrosse athlete, currently working towards her master’s degree in Rowan University’s Coordinated Program in Dietetics, to eventually become a registered dietitian. Upon graduation, she plans to work with athletes to help them adopt a sustainable approach that allows them to fuel their body, and maximize their potential.