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Today in Health & Wellness
FITNESS AND FUEL

Should Athletes Go Gluten-Free?

"Know the Essentials Before Going Gluten-Free"
By: Jose Maria M. Villarama IIShould Athletes Go Gluten-Free?

As with any diet, it is very important to know what it is and what it entails before trying it out.  Basically, a gluten-free diet is one which doesn’t have gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley or rye.   Gluten is said to cause inflammation in people who suffer from celiac disease, a condition which damages the lining of the small intestine and consequently impairs nutrient absorption by the body.  In North America, research has shown that 1 out of 10 people are gluten-intolerant or at least sensitive to gluten, experiencing discomfort or symptoms in the intestines when they ingest it.

Eating food without gluten, therefore, helps prevent inflammation and the progression or complications of the disease.  The only downside of this diet, however, is that there may be limited gluten-free items commercially available --- mainly breads and pasta ---- or that one has to go through all the trouble of having to scrutinize which food items are gluten-free or not, especially when dining out.

But the good news is, many naturally-occurring food products are already gluten-free.  These include unprocessed beans, seeds & nuts, eggs & most dairy products, breading-free cuts of meat, fish & poultry, and of course, fruits & vegetables.

Breaking down the Carbs

Whether one is an athlete or just a regular Jane or Joe going about his or her daily routine, carbohydrates are mostly likely the food of choice and the main source of the body’s energy.  Not surprisingly, this energy is derived from gluten-containing products like bread, pasta, pastries, crackers, chips --- i.e., the typical go-to “go foods” ---- to maintain one’s blood sugar level or simply to satisfy one’s hunger pangs until the next major meal of the day.  

Fuel on the “Go”

When an athlete engages in heavy physical activity, he or she would opt for a quick fix to immediately replenish lost energy. Typically, these would be processed carbohydrates (as already mentioned above) which contain gluten. Based on body weight, type of sport, energy output, the recommended intake of carbohydrates is about 15 grams per kilogram of body weight.  Aside from merely providing a temporary sugar rush (i.e., unsustained energy level), food items with high glycemic levels have been associated with the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression, chronic kidney disease, and certain cancers, among other diseases.

Dietary Doubt

Some athletes are ambivalent about going gluten-free.  Some believe that eliminating these items from the diet may not give him or her the proper fuel needed for the stamina and endurance required before and during sports and for energy recovery after strenuous physical activity. Critical vitamins and minerals derived from grains, such as iron, fiber or B-vitamins, may also not be sufficiently supplied to the athlete’s body. Supplementation is advised by trainers and dietitians to athletes who have these concerns.

Committing to Being Gluten-Free

For what it’s worth, a gluten-free diet still serves its purpose for those with celiac disease, if not for athletes.  But once one has committed to go gluten-free, he or she should be discerning about his or her food choices.  Again, while it is difficult to do so especially with limited choices and when dining out, one can keep in mind the following tips to avoid intestinal irritation or inflammation at the very least:

-       Choose green and starchy vegetables, fruits, and legumes over rice, bread or pasta;

-       Avoid food items with sauces or breading if one is not sure about their actual make up;

-       Scrutinize food labels to ensure that items do not contain wheat, barley or rye;

-       Check labels for allergy information, such as if the food item was processed using equipment that also processes wheat;

-       Segregate foodstuff like jams, spreads and peanut butter that may easily be contaminated with wheat products when spreading or being used by other members of the family or friends;

-       Do not reuse oil which has been used to deep fry gluten-based products;

-       Discard wooden utensils, boards, non-stick cookware or flour sifters that are easily contaminated by gluten;

-       Use soap and water liberally to clean cooking implements and utensils but make sure to replace sponges periodically to avoid cross-contamination.

While it may be difficult to adopt new dietary habits, there is no doubt that it is the only way to stay gluten and inflammation-free.

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