Athletes With Celiac Disease. Everything You Need to Know

Did you know that celiac disease is one of the most common autoimmune conditions?

You’ll be shocked to learn that one out of every hundred healthy Americans has it.

So there must be about 3 million people in America battling with it, and the number is bound to include athletes with celiac disease as well.    

Symptoms of celiac disease can range from fatigue and diarrhea to severe pain, infertility, and more.

Honestly, the only way to alleviate these symptoms and stay safe is through a gluten free lifestyle.

As an athlete, you have to take extra precautions, as celiac disease can pose serious threats to you. 

Athletes with Celiac Disease

You know that as an athlete, you have to ensure that you are in your best physical condition possible.

From getting tested to consulting a nutritionist, everything plays an essential role if you have celiac disease.

But to keep celiac disease’s symptoms at bay, you need dietary and lifestyle changes. 

It starts with nutritious foods and drinks and being mindful of what you put in your mouth.

That may not always be easy, especially when you’re traveling or eating out with fellow athletes.

But taking proactive steps to avoid gluten and improve your health and performance is the only way for you.  

Signs and Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Athletes

Athletes, in general, have an active life full of exercise, practice sessions, traveling, eating right to maintain the perfect weight and calorie intake, and more.

Life gets tough, and you might be missing the signs of celiac disease.

But if you notice the following problems recurring, it’s time to take a test!

a) Athlete Fatigue 

Getting exhausted after practice sessions is one thing. But experiencing extreme fatigue and a drop in energy levels might be a sign of celiac disease.

If your level of tiredness is unusual and extreme, it might be caused by the wheat, barley, or rye in your diet, and taking a test will help you choose a new life. 

b) Feeling Bloated

An early sign of celiac disease is feeling bloated. Gluten can lead to inflammation in the digestive system, causing bloating.

As an athlete, this can impede your training and performance, as you’ll feel uncomfortable constantly. Celiac disease also causes constipation, further worsening the bloating.  

c) Gassiness

Let’s be truthful here – athletes are a little gassy. There’s nothing to be ashamed of! It’s your regular twisting and bending that pushes air out of the digestive tract.

But if the gassiness is higher than usual, the reason behind it could be gluten, causing indigestion and constipation and leading to excess gas. 

d) Weight Loss

Weight fluctuations are common for athletes. With an increase in workout intensity or a new diet plan, weight loss can occur.

But if this weight loss is significant, celiac disease might be behind it. The condition can impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and cause caloric deficiency and malnutrition.

e) Depression

The feeling of dejection is bound to harm your performance. But when there is prolonged depression distracting you constantly and preventing you from keeping your head in the game, it’s time to think if it is caused by celiac disease.

Though it might sound strange, the condition can affect your mental health. 

When should you get tested for celiac disease as an athlete?

If you look at these conditions individually, you will notice that they are not uncommon among athletes.

But when they become severe, and you struggle with a combination of two or more of these conditions, it’s time for you to take notice. This is particularly true if you are facing digestive problems.  

Managing Life with Celiac Disease as an Athlete

We have already mentioned a few symptoms of celiac disease that an athlete tends to overlook.

Such problems might be mistaken as the side effects of their diet, exercise regime, exhausting lives, and more – until they become severe. Apart from these, there might be other signs of celiac disease. 

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Headaches, nausea, diarrhea, etc., occurring after the consumption of gluten-containing foods might be other sure-shot signs of celiac disease.

The only way to keep the symptoms of celiac disease at bay is by bringing a sea change to the diet. All food items that contain gluten must be eliminated from the diet. 

Now, the problem with this setup is that athletes need to consume lots of carbohydrates, much of which comes from sources that contain gluten, including wheat products.

This means that the entire diet plan and food habits of an athlete with celiac disease will have to undergo a sea change. 

Eating out can become challenging, as you will either need to take home-cooked food with you or make sure to find eateries that have a gluten free menu.

So, your options become limited. You also need to consume snacks to avoid a caloric deficit while preventing bone problems, exhaustion, or injuries. 

a) New Diagnosis of Celiac Disease

For an athlete recently diagnosed with celiac disease, total dietary change can leave a big impact on their performance.

The best way to approach this change should be multidisciplinary. The change can also be stressful.

So, you must also see a sports psychologist to help you deal with the change. 

Only an experienced nutritionist can help you find the best replacements for wheat, barley, and rye in your diet.

You need healthy sources of carbohydrates like rice, beans, corn, quinoa, and others.

In addition, your diet should also include lots of fruits and vegetables, along with protein. 

You will also need the help of a physician, not only to deal with the effects of celiac disease but also to experience a smooth transition into a gluten free lifestyle.

Meanwhile, your fitness expert can help you maintain body mass and weight and stay on top of your fitness game.  

b) Long-Standing Diagnosis of Celiac Disease

If you’re an athlete who has been diagnosed with celiac disease over a year ago, you probably have your diet, workout routine, and lifestyle planned out.

The priority for anyone with celiac disease is to adhere strictly to a gluten-free diet. This is the most essential step for keeping the condition under control.  

It’s likely that by following a gluten free lifestyle, you have successfully kept your celiac disease under control.

However, that’s no reason for you to experiment with your body and try a morsel or two of gluten.

Remember that going gluten free is a lifelong commitment – with no option of a divorce. 

The temptation to cheat will always come your way in the form of a well-cooked plate of pasta or a sandwich loaded with your favorite meats.

Plan ahead, as it can be difficult to keep your hands off gluten at a dinner party with fellow athletes or find a gluten free restaurant while traveling.

How to Eat and Stay Gluten Free as an Athlete 

If you think breakups hurt, you’ve probably not gone gluten free yet. If you have, you know how stressful and overwhelming quitting gluten can be.

You need guidance at every step of the way in the initial stages and should continue to reach out to the experts for follow-ups to stay on track. 

Faltering at any step or cheating on your diet will definitely affect your performance on the field.

So you need to be extra careful about how you choose your foods and beverages.

You need to make an effort to stay motivated to remain on your gluten free journey. Here are a few things you can do:

a) Shopping

The first step of eating gluten free food is shopping. You need to ensure that only gluten free food comes into the house, at least for you.

Now, this process can become a little easier when you know exactly what kinds of products you can and cannot eat, based on the guidance of your dietician. 

For instance, you can go for tapioca flour, cornflour, buckwheat, amaranth, and other starches to replace wheat.

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You should also skip barley, rye, or wheat products or derivatives. But what about the other products, especially packaged foods or beverages? You should know how to find gluten-rich ingredients.

At the time of shopping, check the list of ingredients for malt, triticale, Hordeum vulgare, Triticum spelta, Triticum vulgare, and Secale cereale.

These indicate the presence of gluten. So you must not buy these products at any cost. Apart from that, there are some terms that are ambiguous. 

Other products that must be avoided at all costs include durum, kamut, breading, bulgur, farro/faro, spelt, dinkel, seitan, and matzo.

These products contain gluten and can cause the symptoms of your celiac disease to flare up. Apart from these, there are other ingredients that might contain gluten.

The presence of modified starch, flavoring or coloring agents, preservatives, thickeners, HVP, HPP, seasonings, dextrin, or any additive can be problematic.

The best thing to do to avoid confusion is to look for a “gluten free” label. This label indicates that the product is safe for people with celiac disease. 

Shopping for gluten free products will eventually become easier, as you will get used to looking at the label and recognizing if the product is naturally gluten free or not.

However, a “gluten free” label is a sign that the product has been tested, and it contains less than the permissible gluten limit of 20 ppm. 

You have to remember that even naturally gluten free products might contain trace gluten as a result of cross-contamination.

While trace gluten does not always affect people with gluten allergy or celiac disease, it is best to go for certified gluten free products in case you are severely allergic to gluten.  

b) Preparation and Storage

Now that your pantry and refrigerator are filled with gluten free products, it’s time to pay attention to their storage and the preparation of your food.

One of the biggest challenges of living in a household where others eat gluten is to maintain the proper boundary. This can be achieved through labeling. 

For starters, separate all your own cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery, storage units, etc.

Make sure that you, and you alone, use these. If others in the house use these to cook, serve, or store gluten-containing foods, traces of gluten might be left behind in them and cause cross-contamination.

To prevent any kind of confusion, you should label your own plates, pots, knives, spoons, and others.

Make sure that the labels are clear and preferably in bright colors so that the others in the house do not end up using these.

This is essential to prevent trace gluten left behind on these utensils. 

It’s not just about utensils and cutlery, though. You also need to be careful about toasters that collect crumbs.

It’s a little too much to have two toasters in the kitchen. Instead, use toaster ovens or reusable toaster bags.

Cook gluten free food first and clean them thoroughly with soapy water after each use.  

Another thing to do at home is to prevent double-dipping when it comes to shared food items like butter or jam.

For instance, if a butter knife is used to spread jam on a piece of bread and then dipped into the jar again, gluten-containing bread crumbs will get transferred into it, causing cross-contamination.

c) Eating Out

Eating out is where anyone following a gluten free lifestyle gets stumped. Getting your event managers to serve gluten free foods during team meals can be a challenge.

The main reason is a lack of awareness about this condition or its detrimental effects. The other reason is in your mind: fear of being judged.   

Most people with celiac disease prefer not to eat out and go for home-cooked meals.

Even while traveling, they carry food cooked in their own kitchens. Before going out, check if carrying cooked food is an option.

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If it is, the best thing to do is to join others and eat your own food while they enjoy theirs.

If not, insist on finding a restaurant that has a gluten free menu. The number of eateries that recognize celiac disease and cater to people who suffer from the condition is small.

But they are not exactly non-existent. Even if it’s not a completely gluten free restaurant, find out if they offer a special menu. 

That’s not sufficient, though. You need to get in touch with the authorities of the eatery to find out if they store, cook, and serve their dishes in such a way that there’s no possibility of cross-contamination.

If they use the same ladle to cook your gluten free ragu and some gluten-rich Arabiatta, it’s a problem. 

While traveling with your team, you may be able to find gluten free food on the menus of most of the major airlines.

But you must book in advance to ensure that you can avail such options. In the worst-case scenario, pick foods that are made from naturally gluten free ingredients to minimize your gluten intake. 

It is essential to remember that food labeling laws might differ from one nation to the other.

So consult your dietician before traveling overseas. That way, you will be able to get recommendations regarding what foods you should include in daily meals while traveling. 

While traveling, dining cards that contain translations of your gluten free meal requirements might come in handy.

You can download these easily or install apps. They can help explain your condition and share details about the ingredients and cooking conditions that can and cannot be used in your food. 

Another difficult situation is when you accept an invitation. Instead of worrying about being judged, the best thing to do is to explain your situation and request your kind host to make some special arrangements for you.

If you manage to educate them, they will hopefully understand your situation. 

Whether you’re traveling around, going to local eateries, or attending a brunch invite, the key is to plan ahead.

You have to do your homework to find the best options for yourself. You’ll need to make requests for alternative arrangements – or do what most celiac patients do, i.e., carry your own food along. 

d) Being Vocal

For some reason, athletes are a little embarrassed to talk about their celiac disease.

Indeed, it’s difficult to say out loud that they can get gassy, bloated, or constipated by pasta without getting a judgmental sneer from your fellow athletes. But you need to stop being shy and accept your condition. 

It is only when you accept yourself that you can be vocal about your condition and speak freely with your doctor, nutritionist, trainer, and psychologist.

Learning to talk about your condition is essential for you to be able to ask for gluten free food and products at markets, restaurants, team meals, and more.

An essential part of transitioning smoothly into a gluten free lifestyle is to educate people close to you about celiac disease.

You’ll need to talk to your manager, team administrator, event manager, fellow athletes, coaches, and others regarding your food choices and the reason behind them to get support.

Conclusion:

Living with celiac disease will not be easy, especially as a busy athlete who needs to travel around, work out, meet calorie goals, and eat lots of carbs.

After all, cutting out gluten from your life completely is not easy. But that’s the only way to ensure that you’re healthy and can perform well on the field. 

If athletes like Novak Djokovic, Drew Brees, and Cedric Benson can do it, so can you.

Get inspired by them and stay motivated to remain on the gluten free path. The key is to accept your condition, talk about it, and plan your life ahead, so celiac disease does not get a chance to defeat you on the ground.  

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About the Author: Johnny

I am the senior editor and writer of Gluten Free Heroes, before that, I wrote for various well established online magazines about food and health. I love working out, traveling and eating healthy.