Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes

in Celiac, Features
Published: February 5, 2014
Craig PintoRecord setter Craig Pinto

Bronski’s Food for the Road

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.”


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 his apparent vocation and avocation: 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.”

Next: The gluten-free Ironwoman