The Gluten Solution

Gluten has been called all kinds of names, both good and bad. But what rap does it deserve? And, as an athlete, should it be a part of your daily diet?

A combination of the proteins gliaden and glutenin, gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale, spelt, bulgur, and kamut, as well as all products made from those grains. Gluten is a protein that people with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease causing the lining of the small intestine to become inflamed) need to completely avoid to keep symptoms such as nutrient malabsorption, unhealthy weight loss, diarrhea, severe stomach cramping, pain, and bloating at bay.

Gluten gets around. Where there’s wheat flour (breads, bagels, muffins, pastas, crackers, etc.), there’s gluten. Order a deli sandwich on healthy looking dark rye, there’s gluten. Thickeners (typically some form of wheat) possibly in your salad dressing or BBQ sauce, there’s gluten there. The fillers found in many canned soups and frozen meals—gluten again. Organic 12-grain bread and cheapo white-as-white-can-be wonder bread—gluten and gluten. Oats are on the fence, as they may be contaminated with gluten during growing and processing unless carefully handled (certified gluten-free oats should be safe).

Many people, from your average Joes to Olympic athletes, credit their newfound gluten-free lifestyles with amazing positive changes in overall health and performance. Improvements in digestion, GI disturbances, weight, energy, mood, cardiovascular health, skin/acne, joint pain, inflammation, and exercise recovery are among the many benefits often cited. Most of these individuals do not suffer from celiac disease but feel they are “gluten sensitive” or “gluten intolerant.” They won’t show positive testing markers or damaged intestinal lining that comes with the official diagnosis of celiac disease, but they feel significantly better without gluten in their diets. And on the re-introduction of gluten, negative symptoms return quickly.

If any of the following sound all too familiar, and you’ve tried other options to no avail, try eliminating gluten for a month and track your improvements.

– Are you sore after training much longer than you should be, or used to be?
– Are you suffering from increased joint pain in general?
– Are your energy levels not up to snuff?
– Are you getting injured more often or do you take longer to heal?
– Do you experience upset stomach, bloating, or skin irritation after eating?
– Is it getting harder to maintain an optimal weight?
– Are you suffering from chronic headaches?

Going gluten-free as an athlete doesn’t mean your carbohydrate consumption (and pre- and post-workout fueling) needs to suffer or that you have to buy expensive “gluten-free products.” There are plenty of whole, unprocessed, gluten-free, carbohydrate-rich foods to keep you on the upswing. Sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, lentils, quinoa, and gluten-free oats are among the best choices, with fresh fruits and veggies making the cut as well. Other gluten-free foods (albeit not as nutrient dense or commonly found) include white rice, white potato, corn, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, tapioca, and teff.

Also on the gluten-free menu are animal proteins—unbreaded and organic when possible (chicken, eggs, beef, turkey, bison, lamb, fish)—and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive and coconut oils, avocadoes). Dairy products, such as high-protein Greek yogurts, whey protein powders, and cheeses are typically gluten-free.
Even though there are many gluten-free products available, including breads, bagels, muffins, and pizza, you’re always better off with whole, unprocessed, unpackaged foods. Trading regular pizza for gluten-free pizza or gluten-free brownies instead of regular brownies may give you some minor relief of symptoms, but trading one junk food for another will not significantly help you in the long run.

Gluten Gourmet
Here are a few dietary suggestions that can help you plan gluten-free meals.

• Whey protein and berry smoothie
• Garden veggie omelet with baked sweet potato home fries
• Chicken sausage with gluten-free oatmeal
• Greek yogurt and quinoa

Lunch & Dinner
• Grilled chicken salad or chicken salad over greens
• Homemade lentil soup or turkey chili over quinoa
• Wild salmon with brown rice and asparagus
• Bunless bison burger patties with baked sweet potato and veggies
• Grass-fed ground beef sautéed with onions, peppers, and diced tomato over basmati brown rice

Snack Choices
• Raw veggies and hummus
• Dehydrated veggie chips with sliced avocado or homemade guacamole
• Nut or flax crackers with almond butter
• Fresh fruit and nuts

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