Gluten-Free Diets On The Rise

Many triathletes, like pro Heather Wurtele, are talking about the benefits of going gluten free, but is it something every triathlete should consider?

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Many triathletes, like pro Heather Wurtele, are talking about the benefits of going gluten free, but is it something every triathlete should consider?

“Gluten free” is a term becoming quite mainstream. Shelves at the grocery store are lined with products labeled gluten free and restaurants highlight these items on their menus.

But what is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other carbohydrates, and is often used as a food additive. For those suffering from Celiac disease, a wheat allergy, they must follow a gluten-free diet. The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center defines Celiac as “an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person who has celiac disease consumes gluten, the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body.” Wheat allergies affect, on average, one in 133 healthy people in the U.S.

Heather Wurtele has had success this year, including a win at this weekend's Ironman Lake Placid Triathlon. Photo: Larry Rosa/Ironman

Professional triathlete Heather Wurtele is one of those of people. Wurtele used to have chronic, low-level GI issues that detracted from her overall quality of life. It was especially hard because she was an athlete. “Given that our bodies are working hard to repair from training, it makes sense to avoid added digestive stress,” she says. Wurtele found that only when she removed gluten from her diet did her digestion and overall energy levels improve.

Due to gluten-free diets receiving so much attention, it’s high on people’s awareness. “It’s in the media a lot so people want to try it. But way more people follow it than actually need it,” says Tara Coleman, a San Diego-based clinical nutritionist. Coleman also states that maintaining a gluten-free diet can be tricky and very expensive. In other words, if you don’t have to be on it, it probably isn’t worth the extra effort (and extra cash).

But for Wurtele, the benefits are tremendous. “A lot of people harp on gluten free as just being another fad and having little scientific evidence to support it. Quantitative measures can be tricky, but qualitatively, if you remove gluten from your diet and feel a heck of a lot better, that’s good enough for me.”

So for those suffering GI stress, it might be worth following a gluten-free diet to see if it makes a difference. And the good news, Coleman states, “There aren’t many negative repercussions to being on this diet. You aren’t cutting out an entire food group.”

To successfully follow a gluten-free diet:
Coleman recommends doing your homework. Start simple and don’t go buy all products labeled gluten free. Plenty of food items are intrinsically gluten free, such as beans, lentils, fruit, eggs, quinoa and seeds.

Wurtele has found that the Gluten Free Living page on the Team First Endurance website is helpful. Seeking advice from a high performance sports nutritionist is also worthwhile. Plus, she reads labels. “There are lots of great brown rice, corn and quinoa pastas available. Buy corn instead of wheat tortillas. Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise is my favorite gluten-free breakfast cereal,” she says.

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