Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes

in Celiac, Features
Published: February 5, 2014
Cover_DanaVollmerDana Vollmer

Olympic swimming champ Dana Vollmer and other top competitors are powered to win – without gluten. From the Summer 2013 edition of Allergic Living magazine.

For swimmer Dana Vollmer, it was a long-awaited moment: representing the United States in her first Olympic 100-meter butterfly event.

From the age of 12 Vollmer had worked towards this place on the starting platform, enduring serious injuries and illness, and persevering despite a disappointing showing in the 2008 Olympic trials, which kept her from performing in Beijing. After taking time off – and being diagnosed with gluten intolerance and an egg allergy – Vollmer seemed to be on a comeback roll, winning a gold medal for the 100-meter butterfly in the 2011 World Championships.

But this was the much-hyped 2012 London Olympic Games. Could Vollmer, a 24-year-old with a history of heart disease, who subsisted on a diet free of gluten and eggs, perform to Olympic standards?

Could she ever. Not only did Vollmer capture the gold, she set a new world record for the women’s 100-meter butterfly, finishing in a blistering 55.98 seconds. She went on to win two more gold medals in London, for performances in the 4×100-meter medley relay and 4×200-meter freestyle relay.

After setting her world record, Vollmer tweeted proudly about being fueled by a “#GF #eggfree” meal. A year after her Olympic performance, she tells Allergic Living: “I do wonder now, looking back at the difference that changing my diet has made, if I was basically poisoning myself with the egg and gluten. I take it out and all of a sudden my body recovers, I’m stronger and healthier, and I don’t have any injuries now.”

The Olympian’s natural performance enhancement comes as no surprise to nutritionist Melissa McLean Jory, co-author of the bestseller The Gluten-Free Edge. A lifelong athlete, Jory, 63, considers her gluten-free lifestyle a “blessing” not a “diet.” Once afflicted with chronic joint pain and other effects of celiac disease, today she is an active mountain biker and climber on a mission to help others find their own peak performance level.

Jory understands that getting enough nutrients on a gluten-free diet can seem challenging for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity, but says that “it can be done, and it can be fun” with a whole foods-based approach. “You can’t fuel an active lifestyle on crappy food, especially if you have digestive issues that might be limiting your nutrient absorption.”

Vollmer agrees, although she admits to feeling overwhelmed initially by her 2011 gluten sensitivity diagnosis. “It seemed so daunting, like I couldn’t eat anything.”

As a young athlete growing up in small-town Texas, Vollmer had loaded up on carbs like pasta, crackers and dense protein bars, landing in the emergency room with abdominal pain, first at age 13 and twice more by college. “They could never tell me what was causing the pain.”

Melissa JoryNutritionist Melissa McLean Jory

Because she had also suffered a torn ACL, a broken elbow, a disc bulge in her back and a frightening heart issue that required constant access to a defibrillator, Vollmer viewed the stomach pain as minor. But by 2010, with the other conditions on the mend, she addressed the issue.

“I finally didn’t have these other injuries, but I was just exhausted.” Working with former Olympic swimming champion turned nutritionist Anita Nall Richesson, Vollmer began eating egg- and gluten-free, and “in a month and a half, I felt like a different person. All of a sudden I had way more energy.”

Vollmer’s Food Picks

On a typical training day, Vollmer starts with a nutrient-rich breakfast mash-up of rice, nuts, seeds, fruit and milk. Lunch is usually leftover steak or chicken with vegetables or a turkey-cheese melt on a corn tortilla. Her snacks include cheese and Crunchmaster crackers, NoGii protein bars, Royal Hawaiian macadamia nut trail mix and roasted almonds.

A favorite dinner for Vollmer and her husband, swimmer Andy Grant, is steak, sweet potatoes and sautéed spinach. One of her culinary experiments is a “fantastic” vegan lasagna made from raw zucchini “noodles” layered with crushed macadamia nuts, tomato-basil sauce and pesto.

Where once she would sleep between morning and afternoon practice, Vollmer now has midday vigor to do things she loves (like projects in her wood shop). According to Jory, this is likely because Vollmer has achieved an appropriate balance between the basics of sports nutrition: macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants).

Whether it’s competitive sports, hiking, playing tennis or dog walking, Jory says you can maximize your diet for all-day energy by understanding the role of various nutrients, and which foods supply them. Vollmer’s signature breakfast, for example, combines fast-acting (fruit) and slow-burning (whole grains, seeds and nuts) fuel to keep her energized through practice or competition.


Energy and endurance were also major issues for ultra-marathon trail runner Peter Bronski, co-author with Jory of The Gluten-Free Edge. Once a healthy athlete, Bronski found himself sick and struggling in 2005. “It was challenging to run down the street to a stop sign and back, which was just three-quarters of a mile round trip,” he says.

Two difficult years later, an assessment of gluten intolerance led Bronski to embrace a strict gluten-free diet. “Once I did, it was one of the most dramatic turnarounds I’d ever experienced.” Since his recovery, Bronski has competed in adventure racing, off-road triathlons and currently, ultramarathons.

Next: Cutting out gluten: a dramatic turnaround