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Against-the-Grain Athletes

Why more competitors are ditching gluten.

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Why more competitors are ditching gluten

There’s a surprising new trend in the sports world: An increasing number of athletes are “going against the grain,” eliminating wheat- and gluten-based pasta, waffles, and cereals in their diet, to give themselves a winning edge. Some switch to improve their health; others to improve performance.

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 the 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 diet change. Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, found out that he had a long list of food allergies, including wheat and gluten, and dropped those allergens from his diet several years ago.

A growing number of others have never been diagnosed with a gluten-related health issue, but they opt to try a gluten-free diet to see if it helps their performance. That happened to members of the Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team, who told Men’s Journal that they were surprised when they adopted a gluten-free diet and experienced better digestion, improved sleep, speedier recovery, and improved athletic performance. Internet forums are alive with similar chatter from athletes.

If you’re a gluten-free athlete, keep these points in mind:

Eliminate gluten the right way. Avoid gluten-free foods made out of white rice flour or potato or corn starch, and stick primarily with whole foods—fruits, veggies, meats, fish, beans, nuts, eggs, and gluten-free grains. This way, your diet becomes more nutrient-dense and performance-enhancing than the typical American diet. “More nutrients = more fuel to muscles and brains = 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 like a high-performance car, elite athletes perform better with higher quality fuel.

So, don’t think just in terms of which foods supply carbohydrates, but also about which carbohydrate sources are better sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Higher-nutrient, higher carbohydrate foods include sweet potatoes, yams, and winter squash such as acorn squash; quinoa; whole-grain rice and wild rice blends; and muffins and other baked goods made from nutrient-packed gluten-free grains or grain substitutes such as 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 experts have attributed the athletic advantage many cyclists and runners receive from the gluten-free diet to the fact that they’re eating fewer high-glycemic (blood-sugar-spiking) foods such as bagels and pretzels, and more low-glycemic (blood-sugar-balancing) carbohydrates such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and beans. Eating a gluten-free diet that’s higher in protein and lower on the glycemic scale enables the body to gradually learn 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 carb-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 nutrition plan for you.

For the Mediterranean-Chicken-Quinoa-Salad recipe shown left click here