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The gluten-free diet seems to be the latest trend. When I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease four years ago, not too many people were aware of what it was. Now “gluten-free” is a buzzword. There are gluten-free restaurants, as well as new food products, and old food products in “gfree” versions to satisfy people’s needs. Whether it’s people who suffer with Celiac Disease, people with “gluten sensitivity” or even people who have simply hopped on the bandwagon for a perceived health benefit, it’s certainly a hot topic these days.
However, many people don’t quite even know what gluten is. So what exactly is it? Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. It can be found in pretty much any delicious thing we eat. Unfortunately, that means no bread, pasta or baked goods. I’m sure you’re wondering: Why would anyone want to give that up? Well, those people who suffer from Celiac must stay far and clear from gluten. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which the consumption of gluten can cause damage to the small intestine. The easiest way Celiac was explained to me was by my own gastroenterologist doctor, Dr. Peter Chang. He told me that when people with Celiac consume gluten, there is an immune attack on the villi within the small intestine. This then causes nutrients to not be absorbed. Obviously, when there are no nutrients being absorbed, our health declines, and our bodies will not function properly.
Then there are people who have gluten sensitivity—but are not diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Having a gluten sensitivity means that they suffer from all the similar symptoms after consuming gluten, but their small intestines are not being destroyed or damaged. Some symptoms people experience after consuming gluten are headaches, stomachaches, energy fatigue, dizziness and bloating. None of these are enjoyable, but they are not life threatening.
Then there are people who wish to cut gluten out of their diet for reasons like health benefits or weight loss. Thalia Prum, a practicing dietitian, says that because a gluten-free diet is restrictive and limited, many people see weight-loss results when they substitute the high-calorie foods, like carbs where gluten is found, with natural ones. However, since we all need a balance of carbs in our diet, the health benefit comes when we choose the “good carbs.” Fruits, vegetables and beans are gluten-free by nature. There are some excellent gluten-free grain options out there as well, especially quinoa!
But what exactly are the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet? As runners, it can have some great effects but also negative ones.
- Cutting gluten out of your diet can lead to a healthier life. For those with Celiac, eliminating gluten from their diet is essential for optimal health. Many say they feel better immediately after cutting it out. Also, nutrients will finally be absorbed better when the proper foods begin to enter the body. For those that don’t have Celiac and don’t quite know why they might be experiencing stomach issues, eliminating gluten may help those problems. If you experience negative effects from gluten, cutting it out of your diet will certainly cause you to feel better.
- Who wouldn’t want more energy? Removing gluten from your diet eliminates high-calorie carbs, which can sometimes make us feel sluggish or bloated. Although certain carbs are essential for runners, natural substitute ones do the trick too. Sweet potatoes are an excellent option!
- Removing gluten from your diet aids weight loss. When you replace breads and pastas with natural foods like fruits and vegetables, you’re more likely to get rid of that extra fat.
- Because it’s made from grapes, wine is naturally gluten free. Now that’s a plus!
- You have to say goodbye to some of the best foods around.
- As runners, we fuel from carbs. Pre-race meals often comprise pasta the night before and bagels the morning of. Finding substitute gluten-free brand options of pasta and bagels is possible. However, they are not nearly as tasty and they don’t provide the same performance results for runners.
- If you’re choosing the gluten-free diet, be aware that your body is already used to the particular foods and carbs you put into it. Sometimes removing them may have a negative effect on your nutrient intake. Most foods that contain gluten also contain calcium, vitamin B and iron. When that’s taken away, so are your other essential nutrients. Stick to natural foods as opposed to substitute options!
- Anemia is common in runners who are on a gluten-free diet, especially women runners. Gluten-free food substitutes are typically not iron fortified. It’s important to find ways to replace the lost iron.
A gluten-free lifestyle isn’t necessarily a bad one! It certainly has some positive effects for those who choose it. For runners who need to because of a Celiac diagnosis, it is absolutely essential for their good health.
Related: Get Creative With Your Carbs