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Against-the-Grain Athletes

There's a surprising new trend in the sports world: An increasing number of athletes are going gluten free to give themselves a winning edge.

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After years of not knowing they have a health issue, some athletes discover they have celiac disease or gluten intolerance when they get diarrhea or become bloated after carbo-loading with pasta-or when they experience long-term complications of celiac disease, such as anemia, itchy skin rashes, or repeated stress fractures. Mountain climber Dave Hahn, who has reached the Mount Everest summit 11 times, realized he was unusually weak on his second trip to the mountain, which led to his diagnosis of celiac disease. And a growing number of other athletes are trying a gluten-free diet just to see if it helps their performance. Earlier this year, members of the Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team told Men’s Journal they were surprised when they adopted a gluten-free diet and experienced better digestion, improved sleep, speedier recovery, and improved athletic performance. If you’re a gluten-free athlete, keep these points in mind:

Eliminate gluten the right way.
Avoid gluten-free foods made out of nutrient-poor white rice flour, potato or corn starch, and stick primarily with whole foods-fruits, veggies, meats, fish, beans, nuts, eggs,
potatoes, and gluten-free whole grains. “More nutrients equal more fuel to muscles and brains, which equals higher performance,” blogger Erin Elberson explains.

Experiment with new carbohydrate sources.
Carbohydrates before, during, and after intense exercise are essential to maintaining energy levels and speeding recovery after training or events. But just as with a high-performance car, elite athletes perform better with higher-quality fuel. Higher-nutrient, higher-carbohydrate foods include sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash (such as acorn), quinoa, whole-grain rice and wild rice blends, and muffins and other baked goods made out of nutrient-packed gluten-free grains or grain substitutes (look for amaranth, buckwheat, mesquite, sorghum, or teff flours). If you opt for pasta, choose brown rice pasta over white rice pasta, and for extra nutrition, select brown rice pasta with flaxseed.

Try eating gluten free and low glycemic. Some have attributed the athletic advantage many cyclists and runners have gotten from the gluten-free diet to their eating fewer high-glycemic (blood-sugar-spiking) foods such as bagels and pretzels, and more low-glycemic (blood-sugar-balancing) carbohydrates such as fruits, nonstarchy vegetables, and beans. Eating a gluten-free diet that’s higher in protein and lower on the glycemic scale enables the body to learn gradually to use energy more efficiently from fat stores and to be less dependent on the food in the gut, explains Danna Korn in Living Gluten Free for Dummies. So don’t assume that carbo-loading with pizza and pasta is always the answer. See if a balanced approach with more low-glycemic carbohydrates works better. Or consult a gluten-savvy nutritionist to customize the right food plan for you.

word: quinoa (keen-wah)
Though often mistaken for a grain, quinoa is actually the seed of a leafy plant related to spinach and tumbleweed. A complete protein, it’s tasty and high in fiber.

Make It!

Mediterranean Chicken- Quinoa Salad
Serves 2

Reprinted from the Going Against the Grain Group, 2010, by Melissa Diane Smith

1 cup chicken broth

½ cup quinoa

2 cups diced cooked chicken breast

½cup garbanzo beans

3 Tbs. chopped red onion

½ cup diced cucumber

10 cherry tomatoes, halved

¼ cup chopped canned artichoke hearts

4 Tbs chopped fresh parsley

2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

2 tsp. red wine vinegar

2 Tbs organic extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

Unrefined sea salt and black pepper to taste

¼ tsp. dried oregano leaves

  1. Bring chicken broth and quinoa to a boil in saucepan. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Set aside to cool.
  2. Combine chicken, beans, and vegetables in large bowl, and stir in cooked quinoa and parsley.
  3. Combine lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and seasonings in a small container to make dressing.
  4. Pour dressing into salad; stir until distributed. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

per serving: 620 cal; 55 g prot; 23 g total fat (4 g sat fat); 47 g carb; 119 mg chol; 534 mg sod; 7 g fiber; 6 g sugars