Understanding gluten-free diets for athletes

Posted on January 21, 2020 by

It’s highly likely you will know someone who eats gluten free. For athletes, going gluten-free won’t give you any magic performance gains.

However, if you have an aversion/intolerance to gluten or have a diagnosed condition with coeliac disease, having a gluten-free diet can impact overall health, which in turn impacts performance.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley oats and rye. That’s a good portion of carbohydrate-containing foods – the primary fuel source for athletes.


Difference between gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a medically diagnosed autoimmune disease which can cause severe discomfort and gastrointestinal distress creating structural damage to the lining of the bowel. Even small amounts of gluten for these individuals in food or cross contamination from food can have an impact on the gastrointestinal tract and increase symptoms.

A sensitivity to gluten in foods is slightly different to coeliac disease as it does not cause the same structural damage to the bowel but can produce an inflammatory response to the gluten in the diet which may lead to malabsorption or discomfort, loose bowels or bloating.


Symptoms and adverse responses to gluten, or a build-up of gluten can include digestive issues such as:

  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Gas and bloating
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Fatigue.

There are many other factors which can create these symptoms of poor gut health so its important to discuss this with your dietitian to maintain a balanced and varied diet before simply cutting out gluten.


An athlete’s need for carbohydrates to meet training demands will remain the same, regardless of whether an athlete has coeliac disease or a sensitivity to gluten.

The choice of where an athlete will access those carbohydrates is the biggest consideration, and this can come from sources that naturally don’t contain gluten including:

  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Quinoa
  • Fruit
  • Starchy vegetables

Other gluten-free foods will include gluten free grains like sorghum and buckwheat. Aim to choose gluten-free products which are high-fibre and grainy over more processed versions like white bread and biscuits.


Breakfast may look like

  • Gluten-free cereal with milk and fruit or yoghurt OR
  • Gluten-free toast with eggs avo and vegetables OR
  • Buckwheat or rice porridge


Main meals might look like

  • Buckwheat pasta with meat and vegetable sauce OR
  • Chicken salad with four-bean mix and roast sweet potato OR
  • Grilled meat or fish with brown rice and vegetables


Snacks might look like

  • Gluten-free toast or rice/corn thin with avocado, cottage cheese and tomato OR
  • Carrot and celery sticks with hummus OR
  • Natural yoghurt and berries with pepita seeds


Additional carb snacks to fuel training

  • Gluten-free fruit toast with jam OR
  • Two fresh dates OR
  • Banana OR
  • Rice cakes with honey


If you don’t have an intolerance or reaction to gluten, there is no need to reduce it from your diet. In fact, including foods with wholegrain carbohydrates will be beneficial for gut health for the additional fibre which is essential for gut heath.


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