“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:
- Pack all the normal snacks you eat at home and always have food with you.
- 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.
Don’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.