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Athletes with Coeliac Disease

Coeliac Disease is an autoimmune condition. Patients with Coeliac Disease experience a process whereby the body destroys small intestine lining in response to gluten consumption. While there is NO known cure for the disease, it can be managed with a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet.

The increase in the variety of gluten-free options in restaurants and on supermarket shelves makes this process easy for some. However, it is actually the opposite for some. Athletes and those with a heavy training load often find moving to a strict gluten-free diet even more difficult, as they will most likely need to completely adjust their accustomed diet before, during and after training (as well as competition days).

Foods that contain gluten are almost always good sources of carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereal etc), which are the body’s preferred ‘fuel’ to power these training sessions.

Gluten-Free Snacks for Athletes

Suitable gluten-free options that an athlete could use for a pre-training meal or snack include:

  • A gluten-free cereal (e.g. Freedom Foods Maple Crunch) with reduced-fat milk
  • Stir-fry on rice or rice noodles
  • Air-popped popcorn (such as Cool-Pak Popcorn)
  • Sushi rolls (avoid the tempura fillings and soy sauce as these contain gluten, can use tamari as a soy sauce alternative)
  • Fruit (e.g. banana or grapes)

What’s the Big Issue with Coeliac Disease in Athletes?

To make it even more complex, your ability to absorb multiple nutrients is impaired when small intestine lining is destroyed.

Those with a heavy training load already have increased requirements for iron (especially women of child-bearing age). Throw a diagnosis of Coeliac disease in there and you’ve got an even greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia. This will not only decrease energy levels and reduce sporting performance but also decrease immune function. Decrease immune function will make the athlete more susceptible to common viruses and infections.

Similarly, there is a greater risk of low bone mineral density associated newly diagnosed or poorly managed Coeliac disease. This is due to impaired calcium absorption, making them more susceptible to stress fractures and could see them out of a full training load for at least 6-8 weeks. It can take up to a full year on a strict gluten-free diet for complete restoration of the lining of the small intestine, but once this occurs, the body will be able to absorb these key nutrients as normal.

Recently diagnosed with Coeliac disease?  Have a chat with one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians from Fuel Your Life who will be able to talk you through a training day plan and nutrition strategies for competition day to ensure you are fuelling and recovering optimally.

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