Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes

in Celiac, Features
Published: February 5, 2014
Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free AthletesDana Vollmer

Olympic swimming champ Dana Vollmer and other top athletes are powered to win – without gluten.

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.”

Fueling the Gluten-Free Athlete

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.

Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes
Nutritionist Melissa McLean Jory

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.”

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.

Gluten-Free Ultra-Marathon Runner

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.

Bronski starts his day with a smoothie, and throughout the day eats a mix of healthy fats, protein and a variety of carbs. Even on the road he packs what he would normally eat at home: fresh fruits, sliced vegetables, a sandwich on gluten-free bread or a gluten-free tortilla and Greek yogurt.

Bronski won’t take the chance of eating out while competing: “I invest so much time in training for a race that to have it sabotaged at the last minute by cross-contamination would be heartbreaking.”

After a race or an intense workout, Bronski chooses fuel that helps his body bounce back from stress and inflammation. One of his standbys is First Endurance Ultragen, a drink that is high in electrolyte content, and what Bronski describes as “a really nice blend of simple carbs as well as amino acids for muscle recovery, overall recovery and gut health.”

But Bronski cautions that each individual has different needs, and depending on the newness or severity of a gluten sensitivity diagnosis, proper consultation with a physician may be necessary.

“Various athletes, especially those coming back from a place where they were really sick with something like celiac, need to think about important considerations like bone density loss or iron deficiency anemia. They may require more aggressive intervention with supplementation to help heal faster in consultation with medical counsel.”

Advocate and Football Star

Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes
Record setter Craig Pinto

Former indoor football professional Craig Pinto, 35, found himself in that position 13 years ago. A strong athlete despite having dealt with Crohn’s disease since the age of 12, Pinto began to struggle with recurring nausea and anxiety during his first years at Hofstra University. As an ice hockey player and football kicker, Pinto needed to stay in top shape, but as that became harder to do, he consulted a physician.

Blood tests and an endoscopy revealed celiac disease. Pinto was floored. “It wasn’t the easiest transition for an aspiring athlete at that time,” he says. He dropped out of school and quit football. “I had to do a lot of work on getting myself situated before I went back and did anything else again.”

Eventually, a stint as a volunteer football coach at his high school helped Pinto gain perspective and start to feel “comfortable in my own skin.” He started playing football locally, and in 2008 tried out for the New Jersey Revolution, a professional indoor football team.

“I was scared as hell going there – convinced myself a couple of times to turn around, that I wasn’t strong enough – but it ended up being a great day.”

Pinto not only made the team, but became team captain from 2008 through 2010. Traveling with the team to different cities, he brought his own meals. “I got to be friends with a lot of the guys, and the cool part was that after a 17-week season, they all knew what celiac disease was and what gluten-free was.”

The realization that he enjoyed spreading awareness led to speaking engagements and a celiac disease fundraiser in 2010, where Pinto set a Guinness world record for most field goals kicked in 12 straight hours.

The experience propelled Pinto to launch the Kicking 4 Celiac Foundation, whose centerpiece is a scholarship for college students with celiac disease. Pinto literally kicked off the foundation in 2011 by setting another Guinness World record, for the most 40-yard field goals kicked in 24 hours (1,000 of them!).

Passionate about motivating young people who might feel excluded from athletics due to gluten restrictions, Pinto offers this advice: “If one day you’re sick or have a certain reaction, try to avoid letting it snowball into, ‘I have this condition, I can never eat again.’ One day at a time, figure out what works best for you, without getting distracted by feelings of frustration and anxiety.

“Nothing is too soul-crushing that you can’t work through it.”

Pinto’s Food Approach

Pinto maintains starts the day with a pre-workout banana, followed by a Greek yogurt, protein bar or shake post-workout. Almonds and bananas supply more energy until a typical lunch of grilled chicken, veggies and rice.

Dinner is usually quinoa pasta or turkey burgers, though Pinto feels fortunate to have found a few indulgences at restaurants that truly understand cross-contamination issues.

For gluten-free athletes on the road, he recommends bringing food from home, and reheating it in your own containers to avoid cross-contamination from microwaves. Salads, pastas, yogurts and safe snacks are his travel mainstays.

Pinto’s balanced and prepared approach is at the heart of upping one’s gluten-free game, says nutritionist Jory. “It really is about eating well all the time, so that you feel good when the situation demands more energy. With planning, you can do pretty much anything you want.”

The Gluten-Free Ironwoman

Heather Wurtele

Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes
Heather Wurtele, Ironman Champion

Heather Wurtele certainly proves Jory’s point. Gluten-free since 2010, the Canadian triathlete has since won three Ironman titles, setting new course records in the process. Formerly sidelined by gluten-related stomachaches and bloating, she now has more vitality and resilience.

“Your body is struggling with inflammation all the time,” says Wurtele, “because of the hard training and trying to repair muscles. If you can get rid of digestive inflammation, that’s one less thing your body has to cope with.”

Wurtele travels the world in an RV, training and competing along with her husband, also a triathlete. As Wurtele notes, she couldn’t endure her grueling schedule or win as often if she didn’t eat healthy.

“As I became more competitive as an athlete all these things – stomachache, fatigue – began to matter more, affecting big goals in my life, not just my everyday comfort,” she says. “I mean, having to stop at a Porta-John three times during an Ironman – you’re losing minutes, so it’s something you want to avoid.”

To maintain her winning ways, Wurtele focuses on eating whole food-based meals. Her fuel includes a balanced combination of minimally processed proteins, carbs and fats. Being able to cook in the RV makes a routine easy, but when Wurtele will be at a hotel, she sends food ahead or finds stores that carry what she needs.

Food Endurance Fuel

Typical snacks on the road include rice cakes, packages of certified gluten-free oatmeal, nuts and fruits. The night before a race, Wurtele has her go-to meal: a mash-up of potatoes, yams, carrots, fish and spinach.

Race morning Wurtele is up three hours before start time, generally eating oatmeal with blueberries, agave and hemp. When she can’t stomach a solid breakfast, she’ll sip on a sports nutrition drink. First Endurance Liquid Shots provide her with electrolyte replacement during races.

It’s post-race that causes the most trouble for Wurtele: “After a full Ironman, I usually don’t feel too well, so I can’t eat that much. But if I do crave something, it’s totally anti-sweet because I’ve had all these sweet calories to keep going. If anything, I crave something salty and fatty, so I’ll have French fries or maybe the next morning eggs and bacon or something I wouldn’t normally have.”

To help her stay focused, Wurtele works with nutritionist Noa Deutsch, who has helped her find recipes and ingredients that work for her specific needs. For example, when a snack of applesauce with walnuts and raisins was causing stomach issues for Wurtele, Deutsch suggested replacing the high fructose applesauce with mashed yam for a gentler source of quick but long-lasting energy.

From an Olympic swimmer like Dana Vollmer to an Ironman winner like Heather Wurtele, elite athletes can thrive on gluten-free diets. So too can busy people trying to maintain active lives.

“The best way to stay in the game, improve performance and boost health,” avows Jory, “is to eat a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. Being physically fit is only part of the equation. Being nutritionally fit will help you to reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.”

See also: Gluten-Free Athletics: The Right Diet Fuel

Originally published in the Summer 2013 edition of Allergic Living magazine. Order the e-magazine here.

2019 update: On July 29, 2019, Dana Vollmer, 31 and a mom of two boys, announced her retirement from competitive swimming. She won seven Olympic medals, 16 world championship medals and competed in three Olympic Games.

Craig Pinto’s Kicking 4 Celiac Foundation is no longer active.