Should You Go Gluten-Free? Insights from Pro Runner (and Celiac) Stephanie Rothstein-Bruce

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Stephanie Rothstein, professional runner and Celiac.

“So, is there gluten in vegetables?”

I get this question a lot. I try not to laugh and poke fun, since the answer seems so obvious to me. But then I step back and remember gluten allergies are a new thing to this country, and a difficult concept for some people to grasp.

As a professional athlete, part of my job is ensuring my recovery and ability to train at a very high level on a daily basis. For years, I literally felt like my body was failing me and I had no idea why.

I felt like I was hungover, though I didn’t drink. I woke up with a headache and in a fog each morning. My iron levels were dangerously low, despite attempts to supplement twice a day. I couldn’t recover from runs, let alone life, and I feared my running career was ending before it really began.

Luckily, I had a team of doctors who helped analyze my symptoms. I went on a supervised elimination diet that eventually led to my diagnosis: I am allergic to gluten.

The gluten-free diet is perhaps one of the most controversial issues facing our food industry over the last few years. Gluten-free has somehow become a fad and the “cool” thing to do. Do I think it’s cool not to eat donuts, pizza, and croissants? No! But I have to due to the fact I suffer from Celiac. Busting the myth is what many of us gluten-free advocates are trying to do.

Other professional athletes who have gone gluten-free due to Celiac or to improve their fitness include 2008 Olympian Amy Yoder Begley, American record holder Jenn Suhr, and tennis phenom Novak Djokovic.

What is gluten allergy?

Most allergies are derived from people reacting to the protein in said allergy — for example, the casein in dairy. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. In individuals with no gluten allergy or sensitivity, the body breaks it down like a normal protein. However, in people with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune reaction occurs when you ingest gluten. It causes damage to the intestinal lining and inhibits the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals needed to grow and recover.

Why is gluten in all of my packaged goods?

Gluten is mostly used by food manufacturers as an additive in foods. It’s used as a stabilizer, an emulsifier, and a thickening agent. For someone trying to avoid gluten this can be an overwhelming process. After I was first diagnosed with Celiac in 2010,  my first trip to the grocery store took a few hours — I had to reread every label of the foods that I was accustomed to eating! I describe going gluten-free as constant trial-and-error. Even after three years, I am still learning and experimenting with food. Recently, I learned gluten is even in coffee syrups that I started drinking (boo!).

The lessons can be summed up succinctly: If you can’t pronounce it, contact the manufacturer to make sure it’s safe — or, better yet, don’t buy it. Choose whole foods instead.

Should I give it up?

It depends. There’s a wide spectrum of gluten sensitivity ranging from person to person. I believe finding out where you lie is the most important step in the gluten-free debate. Some people eliminate gluten because they feel it’s inflammatory in their blood and muscles. They note a gluten-free diet allows them to recover better and digest food properly. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it’s been said that many of us were not meant to process grains very well. Some even say grains are inflammatory in the body.

Those who have Celiac Disease, like I do, must remain on a strict gluten-free diet to prevent intestinal damage. If we eat gluten, it can can lead to iron deficiency, gastrointestinal problems, skin rashes, hormonal problems, headaches, nausea, and other not-so-fun symptoms. Celiac disease is like pregnancy. You can’t be “a little pregnant” — either you are pregnant or you aren’t; with Celiac, even a small amount of gluten is just as detrimental as eating a pound of pasta.

So … what can I eat?

This is perhaps my favorite question I get after I tell someone I have Celiac Disease and am also allergic to dairy, soy and eggs.  Though my diet may sound limiting, there is so much variety out there to eat! It really just comes down to patience and creativity. The patience comes in when you’re travelling and have to find somewhere safe to eat and the waiter you ask says “Gluten?” Yeah, we can do vegetarian.” Oh boy! Though I am not vegetarian, I imagine this is similar to the experiences many No Meat Athletes have when they’re served fish as a veg entree.

The biggest help for me was reaching out to others who had gluten allergies and checking out Celiac forums online where people discussed their experience with restaurants, recipes, and products.

My tips for making gluten-free work for you, on the road and at home:

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Babycakes NYC makes traveling to The Big Apple a real treat!

While traveling:

  • Pack all the normal snacks you eat at home and always have food with you.
  • Do the research before you go. Use sites such as Is That Gluten Free? and the Gluten Free Registry to aid in your search. You’ll find great places to eat and pleasant surprises — one of my favorite discoveries was Babycakes NYC, a vegan and gluten-free bakery!
  • Ask a ton of questions and be persistent.
  • Speak up at restaurants and don’t be afraid to double-check with the waiter. Send food back if you are unsure.
  • Order simple ingredients that would be hard to sneak gluten into, like a salad with loads of fresh veggies, or a baked potato.

Eating at home:

When stocking your fridge, the easiest thing to do is stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. Veggies, fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and eggs and dairy (for vegetarians who are not vegan) are all inherently gluten-free. The creativity comes with putting these ingredients together and making flavorful meals that will make you not miss gluten.

gluten free snacks 150x150Don’t be afraid to experiment in the kitchen. During the adjustment period to a gluten-free lifestyle, I met Lauren Fleshman. She, coincidentally, had just started toying with a gluten-free, dairy-free energy bar recipe for her triathlete husband Jesse. I started helping her, we laughed and cried, and after messing up her kitchen far too many times, we launched Picky Bars. I’m pleased that I have a training snack that I can eat every day and feel 100 percent confident in its ingredients. I’m more pleased to help others like me with a brand that I have nurtured and grown.

I will be honest — the first few months after my diagnosis, I struggled with the thought that I’d never be able to eat real bread again. Luckily, the gluten-free industry has grown so much that there are literally hundreds of alternatives for pastries, breads, and anything else your gluten-free heart may desire (even gluten-free ice cream cones)!

The hard truth is nothing that’s gluten-free will ever taste like true bread. But when it comes to feeling good, I’d choose to give up bread any day over experiencing the ill effects of what it does to my body.

About the Author: Steph is the co-founder of Picky Bars, along with fellow professional athletes Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas. If you have questions for Stephanie, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @steph_rothstein.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie, while I don’t have Celiac’s, I do LOVE Picky Bars. I buy them in bulk (from local running stores and your website). They are not only delicious but the perfect long run fuel for me. I just wanted to share that and say thanks!

  2. Stephanie, thank you so much for writing this! Over the last few months, I’ve become more convinced that gluten is the culprit for my eczema. However, fully eliminating it seems to be a major challenge.

    • Austin, I hope it was helpful and you figure out in fact what is causing your eczema. Good luck!

    • Stephanie and Austin, I have what appears to be eczema and cant afford the medical treatment. To be proactive I am eliminating eggs and dairy from my diet for the next three weeks to see if this helps reduce the eczema symptoms. After three weeks I will continue to go egg and dairy free but change my diet to mostly (as much as I can) gluten free. I’m hoping to see if this test will narrow down the source of my skin condition.

      I am a bike mechanic and have a strong feeling that constant exposure to chemicals like chain lubes, grease and cleaning agents are also contributing to my skin condition.

      Matt thanks so much for having Stephanie guest post, you rock and Stephanie thank you so much for helping others through your being of service to those who are suffering.

  3. I´m vegetarian and I have reeeaaaaaallly problems keeping my iron levels up. I already had a treatment with infusions (not sure if thats the right english word- sorry) . I am a bit allergic to white flour, but on gluten one can have test I heared.
    I only now that dairy goods and coffein have an impact on iron absorbtion… but what does gluten have to do with the iron levens?

    • In people with Celiac disease, gluten damages the intestines (specifically the villi) which inhibits the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in foods (not just iron, but all nutrients). This damage can take years to manifest in symptoms but often some of “clues” to Celiac are anemia and un-explained weight loss (and sometimes chronic diarrhea — sorry, not pretty, but true!) because no amount of food consumption can make up for the fact that the villi have lost their ability to absorb vitamins and minerals. So, it is not that the gluten itself impacts iron absorption but that it damages the body’s absorption abilities. Note that Celiac is an autoimmune disease and that a gluten allergy or sensitivity (which is actually a completely different physiological process) does not affect the body in the same way. Celiacs cannot go “on and off” a gluten-free diet — it’s all off, for life or risk permanent damage. Folks with allergies or sensitivity can sometimes “cheat” (though they may pay in bloating and feeling un-well) but they don’t trigger within the body an autoimmune response the way that Celiacs do. Celiac disease should be diagnosed via bloodwork as a life-long commitment to a gluten-free diet is no small commitment; but in our family we have seen some amazing “health miracles” once the diet was adopted.

      • Ditto to all said here, Kymba! I’ve lived with Celiac Disease for 33 years, diagnosed as a baby, and it can be annoying dealing with people’s assumptions. By the way–for anyone reading this, it’s NOT called “celiac’s”. Someone with CD can be called a Celiac but the disease is Celiac Disease…. or for those who have had it as long as me know back in the days they also spelled it Coeliac Disease.

  4. Hello Stephanie,
    I´m vegetarian and I have serious issues with my iron leves. I have had a treatment with iron infusions already (not sure if its the right english words) because the doc said it takes way to long to stock that up with supplements..
    I´ve heared dairy goods and coffein inhibit the iron absorbtion but what does gluten have for an impact on iron levels?

  5. Thanks for sharing your story, Steph! I find it so interesting to read about those with gluten free diets as it’s a serious challenge with our food industry. But good to see that athletes can still make it work. Man, I can imagine that first grocery store trip was overwhelming.

  6. Becky Bruce - Mother-in law says:

    You are a very good writer. A pleasure to read and very proud of you and all your hard work you put into your career everyday.

  7. Eliot W. Collins says:

    I do not have Celiac disease or even any sensitvity to gluten. Do I really have to worry of about cross-contamination of oats? I avoid some forms of wheat (bagels, bread, donuts, pasta. pizza, etc.) anyhow for a variey of reasons, but aren’t whole grains, including wheat, a healthy food for most people.

    What about the peptides from gluten and casein reacting with opiate receptors in the brain, and mimicking the effects of opiate drugs like heroin and morphine?

    • HeyEliot,

      I’m not familiar with the peptides and their reactions so might have to check with someone on that. If you don’t have any allergies you shouldn’t have to worry about CC of oats. Oats for some with a gluten allergy don’t work because they are cultivated in same fields as wheat. Others can’t tolerate the protein avenin in oats. Hope that helps a little.

    • another Amber says:

      Hi Eliot,

      The study cited for the proposition that gluten mimics opiates (a claim made famous in the book Wheat Belly) actually showed that it was foods highest in sugar and fat–not gluten–that triggered opiate receptors in the brain. You can read the study here:
      http://www.ajcn.org/content/61/6/1206.full.pdf

      • Eliot W. Collins says:

        Thanks, but this study, which was done in 1994, does not even mention gluten and gliaorphins (gluteomorphins), or casein and casomorphins.

  8. Peggy Elgert says:

    Well written article. Fortunately I do not have a problem eating gluten, but, unfortunately, the foods containing gluten are evident on my waistline. (Bakery items are more tempting then anything else). I really like your Picky Bars and you have done a great service to provide an alternative to gluten products.

  9. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Thanks for the article. Love increasing awaremess. My wife and I don’t have celiac but we have friends that do and gluten reaks havoc on my wife’s psoriasis (amazing how many docs/dermatologists don’t look for causes, just prescribe topical meds). If I eat GF bread and pasta I don’t get the logey, food baby feeling.
    I’ve never heard of Picky Bars (I live in Massachusetts) but I’ll check them out on your website. Other GF alternatives I’ve found for people that may not have easy access to your product are NRG bars (locally made in MA), GoFree bars, and Oskri. We do like Udi’s Millett/Chia bread as we find that one doesn’t have to be toasted to be palatable. Rudi’s Cinnamon Raisin bread is great for french toast. Also, Udi’s GF pizza crust is pretty good.
    Does anyone know if GU gels are gluten free?

    • Hey Jon,

      Thanks for the post and glad you enjoyed the blog. Thanks for checking out Picky Bars! Most GU gels are gluten free, so should be good to go there.

  10. Excellent and well-written article! I always find it inspiring to read stories like yours. I haven’t tried Picky Bars yet, but am looking forward to doing so for the upcoming triathlon season!

  11. Picky Bars is a new one on me. If I can find them around my neck of the woods I will definetley try them. Thanks for another great article!

  12. I don’t know about gluten but giving up sugar and dairy (most dairy, its kinda hard to completely stay away from dairy)) was the best thing I’ve ever done health-wise. I started to feel better/healthier within days but hat is what works for me.

    Although, I’d like to try going gluten-free for a bit.

  13. Joan Rothstein says:

    Hey Steffie….your research/experience is a real positive boost for others with similar symptoms..and as your mother, I praise your writing and your wonderful ability to share and help others. Oh..and also glad you now “eat your vegetables”..

    your biggest fan

  14. This is a great article. After getting pretty sick last year and finding myself in the throes of a gluten intolerance, I had to educate myself (and others) on what I could eat to fuel my running and stay healthy. I wish this article had been available to me as a resource back then!

  15. Lucy R. says:

    This was an interesting and well programmed article! I only wish that you had mentioned something that I find very important in your travel section… Waiters and waitresses aren’t your enemies. I have a lot of customers where I work with sensitivities and allergies, and I work hard to make sure that they stay safe and happy. It can be really damaging to that relationship when the customers are mean, defensive, or derisive when I have questions about the specific nature of their requests. Just remember that any good wait person worth their salt wants to make you happy and keep you healthy, no matter how many allergies you may have!

    • Absolutely Lucy. I have had some amazing and knowledgable waiters/waitresses! I just meant if they don’t get it and seem hesitant probably best to skip. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

  16. Hi Stephanie I was diagnosed with coeliac disease a year ago and am also a runner. Unfortunately this year I have suffered from 3 three stress fractures as my bone density is really low as a result of being undiagnosed for so long. Have you ever had any injury problems because of coeliac disease and how have you overcome them? Thanks

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