The gluten-free diet is a hot topic among runners, with many experimenting with the diet at one point in their careers. Despite endurance athletes needing a high amount of carbohydrates, many runners have tried eliminating their gluten-filled staples and replacing them with processed products that are free of it. As more people get diagnosed with celiac disease, more gluten-free products become available. But while these products are an easy buy, they’re typically more expensive and have more added sugars than their gluten-laden counterparts. Here’s why you should purchase gluten-free with caution.
Rachel Hannah is a marathoner and registered dietician who says unless you have issues with digestion, there’s no reason you need to be buying gluten-free. “From a taste standpoint even, if you take the gluten out it’s not as good. Many runners opt for these products because there’s a connotation that it’s healthier.”
Hannah explains that when you remove the gluten (one of the things that makes bread taste so good), you need to replace it with filler. This filler comes in the form of salt and sugar. She recommends runners carefully read ingredients to avoid this. “Check if there are any whole grains in the product, as whole grains don’t necessarily contain gluten. When you’re label-reading, look for the words ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’ ahead of the ingredient. For example, whole-grain spelt. If gluten-free products are low in sugar and have some actual grains, that can be OK from a health standpoint. But lots don’t.”
Another consideration is cost. A recent literature review showed that on average the gluten-free diet can also contribute to a significant increase in food expenses (an estimated 206 per cent increase) due to the cost of these diet-friendly foods. For example, the average cost of wheat bread is about $3, whereas the average cost of a gluten-free loaf runs around $5 to $6.
There are lots of grains that are gluten-free but unprocessed. Hannah says these are great for anyone to have, but especially for those who adhere to the diet. “Buckwheat, teff, quinoa are all healthy in anyone’s diet, and better than eating processed gluten-free foods all the time.”
If runners are consuming gluten-free products on a regular basis, but don’t have digestive issues, Hannah would suggest they’re swapped out for whole grains. “It would be better for them to eat actual whole grains rather than purchasing processed and prepared things. If your gluten-free products taste really good, they’ve probably been modified and have lots of sugar. If you’ve got no issues digesting gluten, it’s better to stick to good old fashioned whole-grain wheat bread.”