A (Brief) Gluten-free Guide for Athletes


What do a 2008 US Olympian in the 10K, a 14-time summitter of Mt. Everest, and a Cincinnati Bengals running back all have in common? Let’s strike the obvious. Yes, they have all succeeded at the highest level of their respective sports, but what else links Amy Yoder Begley, Dave Hahn, and Cedric Benson?

The answer is that all three of them follow a strictly gluten-free (GF) diet. And they aren’t alone. Other well-known athletes, such as NFL quarterback Drew Brees, Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer, and current No. 1 ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic are also gluten-free.

This article answers some of the basic questions about gluten and the GF diet to help you better understand your suddenly GF friend or family member. It also briefly discusses what some food makers are doing to cater to a growing number of GF consumers.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a composite of two proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. It works in combination with yeast to make bread rise and contributes to its shape and texture. Bread dough containing gluten gets more and more elastic the longer it’s kneaded. Think of a chewy pizza crust for an example of what gluten does to bread.

Wheat, barley, and rye are so prevalent in the Western diet, even appearing as additives in some ice creams, sausages, and condiments, that avoiding gluten can be a major challenge. This is to say nothing of its occurrence in non-food items like lotions and cosmetics.

Because gluten resists breakdown by the enzymes the human body uses to digest protein, much of it remains intact when it reaches the small intestine, which is the key organ involved in nutrient absorption.

What is the difference between gluten sensitivity and celiac disease?

A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland estimates that as many as 18 million Americans are gluten sensitive. Symptoms vary from abdominal pain to fatigue to tingling in the extremities. Other symptoms mimic some associated with celiac disease, a more serious condition with a poor prognosis if not identified and treated.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder causing atrophy of the villi in the small intestines of people genetically predisposed to the disease. Villi are responsible for much of the nutrient absorption within the small intestine, which is why the body’s inability to adequately digest gluten is an issue. There are no typical signs or symptoms of celiac, though sufferers often cite diarrhea, cramps, bloating, and other discomforts. The disease, however, can elicit dozens of different symptoms, including neurological and dermatological maladies, or be completely asymptomatic.

For decades, celiac was severely underdiagnosed in America. Some sufferers report going ten years or more without a diagnosis. Because of advances in celiac research, the disease is becoming more readily recognized in the United States, with as many as 1 in 133 thought to have it. Undiagnosed and untreated celiac can lead to the development of other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and even cancer of the small intestine.

While incurable in the sense that it doesn’t go away like a cold or flu, celiac can become completely asymptomatic with total adherence to a GF diet. Ruined villi resume normal, nutrient-absorbing activity, diarrhea disappears, and life becomes livable again for those celiac patients who strictly observe the diet. But this isn’t as easy as it seems.

Does a GF diet simply mean not eating wheat, barley, and rye?

In the strictest sense, yes. But completely avoiding those things can be a tricky animal. There is the issue of cross-contamination, for instance, which occurs when gluten from other foods comes into contact with GF food. This can happen easily. French fries cooked in the same oil as breaded chicken or fish, a contaminated utensil used to stir rice pasta, or a cook not changing gloves before preparing a GF meal are all causes for cross-contamination.

Cross-contamination is also the reason that celiac patients avoid oats, which don’t contain gluten. Oats are a problem grain because they are most often processed on the same equipment as gluten-containing grains or grown in rotation with wheat.

What does a GF diet mean for athletes?

Athletes have to adjust just like anyone else who for medical reasons needs to avoid gluten. The good news is that because celiac and gluten sensitivity are becoming more widely recognized and diagnosed, food makers are taking notice. New GF brands seem to pop up weekly, and even established companies are creating new GF products or resourcing ingredients to cater to the GF market.

In 2008, General Mills removed barley malt from Rice Chex and created the first mainstream GF cereal. Today, five varieties of Chex are completely GF.

ProBar, a brand familiar to both outdoor and endurance athletes, launched its Fruition line in 2010. The bar was devoid of gluten-bearing ingredients, but the oats were not GF certified, introducing the possibility of cross-contamination. For less sensitive celiac patients or people with mild to moderate gluten sensitivity, this isn’t always an issue. But for most celiac patients, that possibility is enough to discourage buying. Demand for a totally gluten-free bar made ProBar decide to relaunch Fruition in 2012 with resourced, certified-GF oats. Smaller food makers like Kate’s Real Food, whose bars contain oats, but no gluten-bearing grains, would also like to make the GF transition but find that doing so is cost-prohibitive. Company founder Kate Schade says resourcing the oats for her bars is just too expensive right now. “Certified GF oats,” she says, “would cost six times as much as the ones [Kate’s] currently use[s].”

In November 2012, however, Kate’s launched a new product called the Tiki Bar, made without oats. Schade hopes this bar will be attractive to less sensitive gluten-avoiders, though it is produced in a non-GF facility.

Most GF dieters are GF out of medical necessity because they suffer from some form of intolerance, whether it be gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. But some–Lady Gaga reportedly among them–are gluten-free for a variety of non-medical reasons, making the movement appear like the latest fad.

While remaining GF isn’t easy for anyone, it’s certainly possible for athletes to stay at the top of their game while adhering to a GF diet. Just consider the list of athletes mentioned at the beginning. If you think a little thing like gluten is going to keep Dave Hahn out of the mountains or Cedric Benson out of the end zone, it’s time to think again.

4 Gluten-free Bars for the Chairlift

Stay fueled on ski days with these gluten-free snacks.

Certified GF Bars

Clif Bar, Kit’s Organic Fruit & Nut Bar ($1.49, 1.76 oz)

Clif Bar, Kit's Organic Fruit and Nut Bar This is the most candy-bar like of any date-based bar I’ve tasted, especially the Chocolate Almond Coconut. The only Kit’s Organic to have more than four ingredients is the Berry Almond flavor (five), and that’s because it has two different kinds of berries in it. The 1.76-oz. bars range anywhere from 170–200 calories apiece and are the least expensive bar per ounce in this review. And date-based bars have a distinct wintertime advantage: they don’t freeze. Certified Organic, Gluten-free, Soy-free, Dairy-free. clifbar.com



GF Bars Produced in non-GF Facilities ProBar

Fruition Bar ($1.79, 1.7 oz)

Fruition Bar Reformulated in 2012 to contain only certified GF oats, ProBar’s Fruition date-based line is available in seven tart and fruity flavors. Each 1.7-oz. bar delivers 160 calories of nutrient-dense energy and contains a single serving of fruit. From a texture standpoint, I find date-based bars lacking, though the oats help with this. Fruition’s variety and quality of flavors (I love fruit!) make up for any texture demerit. Like other date-based bars, Fruition bars stay soft in the cold. Certified Organic, Vegan, Dairy-free, Gluten-free. theprobar.com


Kate’s Real Food, Tiki Bar ($2.79, 2.2 oz)

Kate's Real Food, Tiki Bar Kate’s Bars are renown for good flavor, and the Tiki Bar is no exception. It’s Kate’s first bar made with all GF ingredients and is packed with good stuff like mango, cashew, coconut, almond butter, and honey. The 2.2-oz. Tiki packs an energy punch with 32g of carbs, 5g of protein, and 19g of good fats. It isn’t date-based, but the Tiki Bar’s ingredients also don’t freeze when the mercury drops, making it a slopeside winner. Though the Tiki is the most expensive bar in this review, it’s also the tastiest. Certified Organic. katesrealfood.com


Breeze Bar, Energy Bar ($2.20, 2.5 oz)

Breeze Bar, Energy Bar Of all the bars in this review, the Breeze Bar wins the best texture award. A good blend of fruit and nuts makes the mouth happy. Breeze Bar is also the most calorie-dense, with both flavors topping 310 calories per bar, making it more of a small meal replacement than a snack. While the original and chocolate varieties are tasty, there’s nothing new here in terms of flavor. Then again, there are no surprises either, so if you’re looking for a basic nutrition bar that will fill you up during winter outings, this is a solid choice. The packaging claims gluten- and dairy-free, but Breeze Bars are manufactured in facilities that aren’t. breezebars.com




About Author

Aaron Lovell lives in Tooele, Utah, and studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma. He hates fishing, loves ballet, and spends his free time helping his wife coax their four children along on hikes they're not old enough for. Twitter: @aarontlovell

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