Running With Celiac

I recall the moment I was diagnosed with celiac like it was yesterday. I emerged from the fog-like haze of anesthesia to the sight of my gastrointestinal doctor’s head hovering above me, his mouth jabbering and words floating around the room. Fortunately my daughter, a clinical exercise physiologist, was with me because she absorbed every word about my allergy to gluten and its effect on my internal organs. All I heard were six dreaded words, “No more wheat, barley or rye.”

Those words snapped me out of the stupor. “Doc, they’re ingredients in beer and whiskey!”

“That’s right. No more beer or whiskey,” he replied.

“You’re killing me doc,” I said.

Three years later I look at my gluten-free lifestyle as a change for the better. I learned that the gluten-rich foods I consumed the most were pasta, baked goods, cereal and beer. Subtract those foods from a runner’s diet and you can bet he’ll drop unneeded weight. Wheat, barley and rye are replaced with grains such as quinoa, sorghum and flax, which are all natural and healthy alternatives. Add to the menu more salads, veggies, fruit, nuts, meat and fish, and a healthier diet is born.

Runners consume carbohydrates like children consume candy. Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the muscle’s fuel. Foods that are high in carbs include pasta, bread and energy bars, all of which contain gluten. However, in just three short years since I’ve been on the diet, an increasing number of gluten-free products  have appeared on the market. Initially, they were produced by small niche companies that catered to people with special dietary needs, but now large corporations are jumping into the mix, as they usually do when there is a dollar to be made. Competition always benefits the consumer, thus taste continues to improve and prices are more competitive.

Pasta is a staple of distance runners and endurance athletes. Runners carb-load before long-distance races, meaning they store carbohydrates in their body. Many marathons sponsor a spaghetti dinner the night before the race specifically for this purpose. Regular pasta has a flour base, however gluten-free pasta is made with an array of ingredients that can include corn, rice, potato and quinoa. There are an ever-increasing selection from companies like Schar, DeBoles and Ancient Harvest. Like many gluten-free products, some brands are pricier than others. One reasonably priced pasta that I like is Pasta Joy. Gluten-free pastas are comparable to the regular brands in carbohydrates and fiber, the nourishment that endurance athletes’ bodies crave.

There are many gluten-free baked goods on the market—bread, roles, muffins and other favorites. Baked goods can be tricky. Their texture can range from grainy and crumbly to others that are comparable to regular baked goods. Some mass-produced brands come in the freezer section of the supermarket. I’ve found the frozen products maintain their consistency and taste better when toasted or warmed in an oven or microwave (try wrapping the product in a damp paper towel before placing in the microwave). There are many popular companies, like Udi’s and Glutino, that make gluten-free breads, but none I’ve found compare with freshly baked loaves from bakeries that cater to their gluten-free patrons. Expect a learning curve, a period of trial and error, to find the products that suit your taste, but don’t get discouraged because there is something to satisfy every celiac. One warning though; once you taste freshly baked breads, the next step is to invest in a bread making machine. It is the wisest investment a celiac will ever make.

Most breakfast cereals contain gluten, even if it’s only a small amount; however, like pasta the number of gluten-free cereals is rising. Years ago gluten-free cereals were limited to small specialty manufacturers like Nature’s Path and Glutino, but today the large cereal conglomerates led by General Mills with five Chez varieties, and more recently Kelloggs Rice Krispies  have entered the market.

I’ve even found some decent gluten-free beers. While Redbridge, an Anheuser-Busch product, is the most common, Estrella Damm, St. Peter’sand Greens are excellent choices for celiac beer lovers. Nirvana will be when Guinness comes up with a recipe for a gluten-free stout.

One behavioral change as a result of being diagnosed as celiac is that I’ve become one of those label readers that clog the supermarket aisles. The upside to this annoying habit is that it’s an eye-opening education about the ingredients we put into our bodies, and I am now more conscious than ever of my nutrition.

Be an advocate and discuss with your supermarket manager the brands you’d like them to carry. Also, patronize restaurants and sandwich shops that serve gluten-free food. My daughter recently took me to the Foodery in Northern Liberties. I was pleasantly surprised at the wide selection of gluten-free sandwiches and beer on their menu. I had a gourmet sandwich on a gluten-free wrap and a St. Peter’s. As I sat enjoying a delicious, healthy meal I wondered why more establishments couldn’t offer good gluten-free breads, rolls, wraps and beers. It’s truly a mystery.

I’ve found the biggest adjustment to changing to a gluten-free diet is between the ears. The sooner a celiac comes to terms with the diet, educates themselves and begins feeling the positive changes in their health, the sooner the lifestyle will become routine.

See Celiac Disease Foundation and for more information on celiac disease and gluten-free diets.


About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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