Gluten Free Eating for Athletes

Coeliac Disease: What can I eat? I like to categorise gluten free foods within my diet into a few categories. Personally I follow a paleo inspired diet, with modifications made to take into account my training load and need for fuel and recovery. As a coeliac, or even if you just prefer to follow a

Coeliac Disease: What can I eat?

I like to categorise gluten free foods within my diet into a few categories. Personally I follow a paleo inspired diet, with modifications made to take into account my training load and need for fuel and recovery. As a coeliac, or even if you just prefer to follow a gluten free diet, you don’t have to adopt this method of eating. Thus I have outlined the most common sources of gluten free foods, where you will find these ingredients, and some ideas of what to use where. In my next article I’ll share some meal ideas which you can incorporate with or without the paleo influence, and share some of my favourite recipe ideas and the best ways to prepare and cook with gluten free ingredients.

Some important notes:

1. Texture
The texture of gluten free processed foods (especially baked goods) is very different to that of your standard gluten containing products. The reason behind this is that gluten is a protein that gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep shape, and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Gluten free breads and baked goods are often denser in texture and tend not to rise as much. Rice and almond meal based products are the densest, with flours such as coconut giving a lighter and fluffier appearance and texture.

2. Health
Just because you eat gluten free doesn’t make your diet healthier than those that eat gluten. A healthy diet consists of a balance of foods coming mostly from natural sources, including lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes. A gluten free diet can easily accommodate all of these food groups and thus can be a very healthy diet if, like any diet, you make sensible choices.

3. Glycaemic Index (GI)
With rice and corn being one of the cheapest, most readily available gluten free foods available, many gluten free breads, cereals and processed products are based on these ingredients. Both rice and corn are high glycaemic index (GI) foods, and thus overconsumption can lead to raised insulin levels, and inevitably weight gain. Thus it is important to watch what and how much of these products you eat.

There are plenty of great gluten free recipes available to make healthy, low GI breads at home, and health food stores and farmer’s markets often have alternative grain breads in the fridge or freezer section. Deek’s bread ( is an example of such breads (sorry for those in the USA). As for cereals and other baked goods, look for those based on quinoa, amarynth, buckwheat, nuts and seeds. Quinoa flakes make a great breakfast porridge, and can also be used in baking at home.

There are a surprisingly amount of gluten free carbohydrate sources

Carbohydrate sources:

Here is a list of naturally gluten free grains you can include in your diet in place of the traditional wheat based products (breakfast cereals, pasta, breads including wheat/rye/spelt etc). You’ll be surprised how easy it is to create a gluten free base for your carbohydrate fix

• Rice including (in order of preference, lowest GI first) Wild, brown, basmati (or long grain), jasmine (or short grain). Rice flour is widely used in gluten free products including pasta, pizza bases, breads & baked products, and many GF based breakfast cereals and porridges. Where possible choose products based on brown rice flour.

• Quinoa: technically not a grain, quinoa is actually a seed and is very nutritious. Quinoa will grow on you and soon become a staple in a gluten free diet. Comes in it’s original small seed like form, flakes and flour. The flakes make a great porridge based cereal. Personally I toast my quinoa before cooking, more on this later.

• Potato: All potatoes are gluten free, including sweet potato. Baked, mashed, made into chips, all gluten free provided no gluten is added during preparation and cooking. Again comes in flour form and is used in some processed goods.

• Corn: Fresh on the cob, on a salad, or in flour form. Used in many gluten free products including pasta, bread and baked goods, also as polenta. Personally I steer clear of corn but it is perfectly safe to eat on a gluten free diet.

• Buckwheat: Despite the name, buckwheat is gluten free, is high in protein and has quite a nutty flavour. Also comes in flour form great for baking and well know for making buckwheat pancakes.

• Tapioca: Often used as a thickening agent (tapioca starch or flour) also used in puddings in it’s original form. Has almost no protein or vitamins, so not a very useful staple but is completely gluten free and safe to eat.

• Amarynth, millet etc There are a wide range of other gluten free grains you can include in your diet to provide variety in flavour, texture and nutrition. These are some of the ingredients you may come across in pre-prepared gluten free products and baking recipes.

Most protein sources are gluten free in their natural form

Protein sources:

Most natural protein sources are gluten free so it is pretty easy to meet these demands, especially as an athlete with increased protein demands. No need to be vegetarian here.

• Fresh meats: Poultry, beef, lamb, pork you name it, its gluten free. It is what is added in marinades and cooking that you must watch for. One other thing to watch is buying roast chickens, if they’re stuffed – steer clear. Some organic chickens have a gluten free stuffing but be sure this is stated before consuming.

• Eggs are naturally gluten free, a great source of protein and nutrition, and make up a big part of my daily diet.

• Dairy: For the most part dairy is gluten free. In its natural state, milk, yoghurt and cheese are all gluten free.  Again it is ingredients added in processing that you have to watch for, including muesli in yoghurt or malt in flavoured milk.

• Protein powders: Check individual ingredient lists as each product will vary. Beware of cross contamination, probably best to stick to those that state they are gluten free or check with manufacturers to be 100% certain.

• Vegetarian sources: Tofu in its original state (watch marinades), legumes and nuts (again in their natural state) are all gluten free. Beware of vegetarian meat substitutes such as tempeh and texture vegetable protein, always check the label and ingredients list before consuming.

There’s no need to go without dessert on a gluten free diet…

Fat sources:

I can’t personally think of any naturally occurring fats that contain gluten.

• Oils: Olive, canola, vegetable, coconut, avocado, macadamia the list goes on, whether used for cooking or salad dressings, all are gluten free. Some are obviously healthier than others, but all are safe to consume on a gluten free diet.

• Avocado’s and nuts are a good source of naturally occurring gluten free fats

Common misunderstandings:

Rice is gluten free, so why can’t I eat rice bubbles?

As with everything you eat from here on in, it’s not just the base ingredient that counts when checking a product is gluten free. It is the added ingredients that you have to look for.

Common ingredients to look for include:

–  barley malt or malted barley (as found in regular rice bubbles & corn flakes)

–  wheat starch (commonly found in confectionary)

–  Malt vinegar (look for this in salad dressings, mayonnaise, in fact check the label of any condiment before using)

–  Wheat (commonly found in soy sauce and commercial cooking sauces)

What vinegars can I have and which should I exclude?

Almost all vinegar is gluten free, with the exception being malted vinegar. So yes the following are safe: balsamic, white, rice & rice wine, red wine, apple cider

Can I eat lollies and chocolate/candy bars?

No not all of them, and in fact not many. Look for wheat starch in candy/lollies. On the other hand, “wheat glucose syrup” is deemed to be gluten free due to the high level of processing. Check for further clarification on this. There are labelled gluten free lollies available (Allen’s have a line commonly found in the health food section of supermarkets) and Woolworths have an “unlabelled” range of their own lollies that contain no gluten. Check the ingredients list if unsure.

As for candy bars, snickers are gluten free and I use them in races. Mar Bar on the other hand are not, containing barely malt. I used to think Cherry Ripe was OK but I find they make me sick as they contain traces of gluten as confirmed with Cadbury. If unsure contact the manufacturer to confirm before purchasing.

OK now you should have a good idea of what you can eat, and what to look out for. The ingredients list is always the best place to start, and check the allergy warnings following the ingredients list for “contains traces of” or “may contain traces of” warnings. Ultimately if your unsure, do without or contact the manufacturer before consuming.

In my next article I will share with you the foods I used for training, racing, and every day eating.

Christie Sym
Professional Triathlete