Tips for managing your sports nutrition goals as a gluten free athlete

managing coeliac disease
By Steph Gaskell, APD, Accredited Sports Dietitian, IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition

There may be various reasons why you as an athlete are following a gluten free diet or limiting your intake of gluten. You may have been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease (which requires a life long strict gluten free diet), have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and found that restricting large amounts of wheat helps in the management of your symptoms or you just simply prefer this style of eating. Whatever the reason, it is important for you to consider the following to help ensure your nutrition plan is as optimal as it can be for your health and sporting performance.

Carbohydrate is an important fuel for most athletes and is especially important for those participating in endurance-based sports like triathlon, running, adventure racing and more. Breads and cereals are good sources of carbohydrate BUT….

Gluten free breads, cereals and products aren’t that tasty! Right..?

…Not so. Gluten free food has come a long way to where we are now with some tasty and better forming products e.g. bread is not so dense or dry and crumbly. You can still get less tasty and satisfying gluten free products, but isn’t that the same for gluten containing foods. It is about trying a range of different gluten free products and finding those that best suit your taste buds and needs. Gluten free cooking and baking may be more of a challenge but there are loads of resources available to help you in this area, including cookbooks and online cooking tips. In Australia there is the Australian Coeliac Society with a branch in each state available to help support you.

BUT… gluten free is low in fibre and high in fat… Right..?

…It doesn’t have to be. You can choose to eat a healthy, low fat and high fibre gluten free diet.  High fibre gluten free choices are becoming more readily available. For example there are many higher fibre gluten free breads now available such as Helga’s Soy and LinseedTM, 5 GrainsTM, Country Life Low GITM, wholemeal gluten free bread and more. You may prefer to make your own gluten free bread, adding nuts and seeds to the mix to help boost the nutrition profile. There are now dedicated gluten free bread machines but you can also bake your bread just as easily in an oven, provided it heats evenly and you have a good bread loaf tin.

Quinoa has been getting a lot of attention. It is a complete source of protein and provides a good amount of fibre and carbohydrate. You can now get corn based cous cous from the supermarket, choose brown rice or low GI rice such as Basmati or Doongoora. For pasta you can trial many different varieties that are higher in fibre such as buckwheat or quinoa varieties.

Cereals used to be considered bland and low fibre but again this has changed, try choosing wholegrain gluten free cereals. Many brands have these available such as Freedom FoodsTM or you may choose to make things from scratch, quinoa and polenta are just some examples that can be used to make tasty and nutritious breakfast options.

Consuming a well balanced nutritious gluten free diet comes back to ensuring you are getting your foundations in nutrition right. Check out the Eat for Health guidelines. Foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables are naturally gluten free and if you leave the skin on you are adding to your fibre intake. Unprocessed meat, dairy, legumes and lentils, nuts and seeds are gluten free. Enjoy fresh and wholesome foods.

As with any processed food you need to read the food labels to help you understand what it is made up of. Determine what the main ingredients are – is it made from more refined ingredients or not, how much fat does it contain and what type of fat, sugar, sodium and fibre. It is not just about checking to make sure the food product is gluten free, you also need to ensure its nutritional quality.

But.. There are limited options for gluten free sports foods..

Look and you will find. There are times when you, as an athlete may be wanting or needing more refined foods and products such as cereal bars, gels, sports drinks and lollies to help meet your nutrition needs for a high training days or competition. There are now many more convenient gluten free options in this area. Being competent in reading and understanding food labels will help you find the products that you are looking for or seek out the advice of an Accredited Sports Dietitian with a special interest in this area. There is also a good range of sports cookbooks in this area including Skratch Labs Feed Zone Portables and online resources.

But aren’t I more likely to be inadequate in certain vitamins and minerals…

Individuals on a gluten free diet are at risk of nutritional inadequacy therefore it is important that the athlete makes more effort to ensure they are consuming a healthy, well balanced diet. The list below shows the particular attention to the following vitamins and minerals that you need to be mindful of and some good sources of these vitamins and minerals.

  • Thiamine (Vitamin B1) – Pork, offal, wholegrain cereals, brown rice, eggs, nuts, legumes. Some breads are now fortified in thiamine such as Country LifeTM, Pure BredTM (except raisin toast), some LivwellTM products and HelgasTM. AussiemiteTM, Mighty MiteTM and Vege SpreadTM are thiamine fortified.
  • Folate – Liver, leafy green vegetables especially broccoli, kale, spinach, peas, legumes, nuts & citrus fruits. Pure BredTM (except raisin toast) is folate fortified as well as AussiemiteTM, Mighty MiteTM and Vege SpreadTM
  • Magnesium – wholegrains, nuts and leafy green vegetables
  • Calcium – dairy products, leafy green vegetables, sardines including the bones, almonds and Brazil nuts
  • Vitamin A – eggs, meat, fortified milk, cheese, offal and cod. We can also make vitamin A from carotenoids found in food – look for yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables such as carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato, squash, apricot and rockmelon (cantaloupe)
  • Iron – meat, legumes, liver, wholegrains, egg yolks and dried fruit
  • Zinc – red meat, oysters, shellfish, chicken, fish, cheese, legumes, wholegrains, leafy greens and seeds

Give it time…

A gluten free diet will bring challenges and it takes time to learn how to manage these, however there is much more support for consuming a gluten free diet today, with a wealth of resources available. If you are an athlete following a gluten free diet, make an appointment with an Accredited Sports Dietitian today to make sure that your fuelling and recovery needs are spot on.