How to succeed as a gluten-free or dairy-free triathlete?

Are you concerned that having to exclude gluten-containing foods or dairy products from your diet for health reasons will affect your ability to perform well as a triathlete?

Gluten Free TriathleteIt’s fair to say that having to follow a restricted diet does mean that you have to pay more attention to your food choices and may limit the options available to you when eating away from home.

But there’s no reason why, armed with the right nutritional knowledge and with a bit of planning ahead, you can’t eat a highly nutritious diet that supports your energy and recovery needs and allows you to train and compete to the best of your potential.

It’s important to have a good reason for being on a restricted diet, such as gluten or dairy free. Clearly, if you have a medical diagnosis of coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, avoiding all sources of gluten is essential to prevent health issues.

If you have been diagnosed with an allergy to milk or intolerance to lactose (the sugar in milk), then you will need to avoid all foods containing milk. If you regularly experience digestive issues such as abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, constipation, severe bloating or flatulence, and no medical reason has been found for these symptoms, then trialling a period of avoiding gluten or dairy, with the support of a nutrition professional, may be helpful.

But simply avoiding gluten or dairy because you think it will help you to control your weight, your friend is doing it, or because you have heard that everyone should avoid these foods for optimal health, adds unnecessary complexity to putting together a nutrient dense, health promoting diet to support your triathlon goals.

While some people clearly need to avoid gluten and/or dairy products for health reasons, and it is perfectly possible to have a healthy diet while excluding them, there is also plenty of scientific research showing the benefits of wholegrains (most of which contain gluten), eg for heart health, and dairy products, eg for bone health. So I do not recommend avoiding gluten or dairy without good reason.

But if you do need to be a gluten-free or dairy-free triathlete, here is some information and ideas to help you put together a way of eating that optimises both your performance and your health.


The Gluten-Free Triathlete

Gluten is a protein contained in three grains: wheat, rye and barley. All foods containing these grains need to be completely avoided on a gluten free diet. This includes all forms of bread or crackers made with wheat or rye; all cereals, mueslis, granolas and cereal bars containing wheat, rye or barley; all pasta and pizza made with wheat; couscous, Bulgur wheat and pearl barley; all cakes, biscuits, pastries and other treats that are not labelled as gluten free.

Wheat or gluten can be found in a surprising amount of processed foods, eg soya sauce. Always check the ingredients and allergen box on the label. And don’t forget that beer is made from barley! You also need to be careful with oats, which are often grown in cross-proximity to the gluten-containing grains or processed in the same facilities.

Certified gluten-free oats and oatcakes are becoming more widely available, eg these products from Nairns, so always choose this type rather than standard oats if you are following a gluten-free diet. If you are newly diagnosed with coeliac disease, it is best to avoid oats completely for the first year.

Gluten free alternatives to bread, pasta, cakes, etc are widely available through supermarkets now. These generally use gluten-free ingredients such as rice flour, potato starch, almond flour, corn and other non-gluten grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet.

Do remember that gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthy; many of these products are low in fibre and high in sugar!

To meet your carbohydrate requirements on a gluten free diet, try to use unprocessed gluten grains such as rice, corn, quinoa and buckwheat rather than packaged gluten-free foods, together with legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas, and starchy vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, butternut squash and beetroot. This will help to provide you with the B vitamins and magnesium that you need to produce good levels of energy for your swim, bike and run training.

Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables, fruit and oils are all naturally gluten free and should make up the rest of your healthy diet. You can also eat dairy products unless you are lactose intolerant, which is quite common in those with coeliac disease.


The Dairy-Free Triathlete

If you need to avoid dairy products (those made with milk from cows and often, although not always, from goats and sheep too), there are plenty of alternatives available from supermarkets now. Non-dairy milks include soya, rice, almond, oat and coconut. Look for versions that are fortified with calcium, as this is not naturally contained in non-dairy milks and important for triathlete bones!

You can buy yogurts and cream made from soya or coconut, and almond butter works well on toast if you prefer to avoid highly processed vegetable oil spreads. For a treat, try Booja Booja ice cream, which is also gluten free . Non-dairy cheeses are highly processed and I would personally avoid them on a dairy-free diet.

An important consideration for triathletes on dairy-free diets is recovery products. Whey protein is a common ingredient and derived from milk. This will mean that you need to avoid any commercial drinks or bars containing whey protein. Some contain soya protein instead, eg Science in Sport’s Rego Rapid Recovery with Soy or the Maple and Peanut Protein Bar from Pulsin’ .

A good alternative is to make your own recovery drink using a dairy free protein powder such as soya, pea or rice, together with dairy-free milk and some fruit. Pulsin’ do a good range of dairy-free protein powders, as do Sun Warrior. Both can be purchased in health food shops or via Amazon.


Meal Ideas

Here are some ideas to help you support your triathlon training and racing while following a gluten and/or dairy free diet:

Breakfasts (on race day or before a long run or bike)

  • Gluten-free toast, with almond butter or mashed banana and honey
  • Gluten-free porridge oats or quinoa flakes, with almond or soya milk
  • Buckwheat pancakes with honey and berries

Main meals (night before a big training session or race)

  • Risotto, made with rice, chicken or prawns and vegetables (no cheese)
  • Corn or rice pasta with chicken, vegetables and tomato sauce (no cheese)
  • Baked sweet potato and grilled chicken
  • Quinoa, steamed and mixed with vegetables and fish, chicken or hard-boiled egg
  • New potato salad with poached salmon
  • Sushi selection (6-8 pieces)

Recovery meals (after a long training session)

  • Kedgeree, made with rice, salmon, hard-boiled egg and rocket
  • Quinoa or brown rice with chicken and avocado
  • Scrambled eggs and mushrooms on gluten free toast
  • Tortilla, made with potato, egg and vegetables
  • Baked white or sweet potato with baked beans or tuna

I hope this information helps you to put together an enjoyable gluten or dairy free diet, which also meets your nutritional needs.

Good luck in your races this season!

by Jo Scott-Dalgleish, Nutritional Therapist