The Gluten-Free Athlete

Athletes with celiac disease don’t need to let dietary restrictions impact their performance goals.


Q: I’ve been CrossFitting for more than a year and can efficiently do all the movements, but I feel stuck because I have celiac disease. Some of my buddies have explored different nutrition avenues to boost their performance, but these just aggravate my condition. Can you help?

A: Celiac disease is a condition in which eating gluten, a protein found in certain grains (most notably wheat), triggers an autoimmune response (i.e., one in which the body attacks itself) that damages the intestines and affects the absorption of nutrients (a process that mostly takes place in the small intestine). Athletes with celiac disease might be susceptible to conditions like anemia and osteoporosis as a result of inadequate iron and/or vitamin D and calcium absorption, respectively. Maintaining a gluten-free diet is the only way to avoid symptom flare-ups and preserve performance.

Eliminating gluten means avoiding wheat, barley and rye, as well as paying close attention to labels for processed foods (in which gluten is often used as a binding agent). And while there’s currently a gluten-free food boom happening in supermarkets, some foods that claim to be gluten-free still contain enough gluten to trigger a sensitive celiac. Which is why most sufferers are told to stick to whole foods.

When it comes to enhancing performance, there are numerous gluten-free options that can be safely consumed. Postworkout breads, pastas and, yes, donuts (you know who you are) should be replaced with sweet potatoes, squash and bananas. Some athletes with celiac disease can tolerate white rice (a gluten-free grain), but, just like white potatoes, it must be tried on an individual basis because responses vary.

As far as protein sources are concerned, avoid dairy. Some celiac sufferers are also sensitive to the milk protein casein. And while some athletes can tolerate specific types of dairy — particularly raw, fermented, or goat- or sheep-derived products — whey protein powders should be avoided and replaced with quality egg and/or beef protein powders. Speaking of supplements, gluten-free, hypoallergenic branched-chain amino acids, glutamine and creatine also may be strategically used to help boost strength and performance.

Celiac sufferers (along with everyone else) also should incorporate healthy fats into their daily diets. Good sources include olives, coconuts, avocados, macadamia nuts — and their respective oils — as well as pastured eggs, grass-fed meats and wild fish. Medium-chain triglycerides and grass-fed ghee (i.e., dairy-free butter) can be blended into coffee for a nice dose of healthy fats and fat-soluble vitamins, which yields enhanced cognition and a calorie boost.

Don’t forget to look on the bright side. Many grains boast a laundry list of detrimental attributes. They’re nowhere near as nutrient dense as vegetables, fruits, fish and quality meats, and the nutrients that grains do contain are often unusable by the body. Grains also contain a host of nasty anti-nutrients that can mess with metabolism, nutrient uptake and the immune system. So in some twisted way, having celiac disease might be a blessing in disguise.

Besides, when you really think about it, most of the foods that truly benefit health and performance are inherently gluten-free, and research shows that even in non-celiac athletes, a gluten-free diet does not hurt performance compared to a gluten diet.