It is possible for gluten free youth athletes to have the fuel they need to succeed! If your youth athlete has celiac disease or is avoiding gluten due to a gluten intolerance, it is important that you replace the gluten they are avoiding to help them meet their nutrition needs. It can be challenging to know which carbohydrates and proteins are gluten free. Keep reading to learn what gluten is, why some people need to avoid it, and what to eat in place of it to make sure your child is able to meet their nutrition needs.
What is gluten
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that helps to shape foods and hold them together (1). Some foods that often contain gluten include breads, pastries, crackers, granola bars, pancakes, cereals, faro, marinades, salad dressings, soups, soy sauce and beer. Oats that are not labeled as gluten free may contain gluten. This is because they can be cross contaminated with gluten due to how they are grown in fields near wheat.
Who should follow a gluten free diet
Gluten free diets should be followed by athletes with celiac disease or gluten intolerance/sensitivities. While gluten free diets are often followed because they are trendy, or as a quick way to lose weight, there is no evidence to support any benefits to a gluten free diet for athletes that are able to tolerate eating gluten (2).
Gluten free carbs for athletes
Youth athletes need carbohydrates for energy, and many carbohydrates naturally have gluten in them. However, with proper planning, it is possible for gluten free youth athletes to meet their carbohydrate needs! One serving of carbohydrates is equivalent to 15 grams of carbohydrates. For reference, this is equal to 1 piece of bread.
Gluten free carbohydrates include:
- Gluten free pastas
- Gluten free breads
- Gluten free oats
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
While all fresh fruits are gluten free, the below fruits are higher in carbohydrates. Carbohydrate amounts will vary depending on the size of the fruit and the type of fruit. Generally speaking 1/2 cup of fresh fruit or 1 small piece of fruit will provide 15 grams of carbohydrates.
- Gluten free cereals
- Gluten free granola bars
- Gluten free pretzels
- Gluten free crackers
- Dried fruits
Did you know that 1 cup of milk has 12 grams of carbohydrates? That is close to the amount of carbohydrates in a slice of bread!
- Chocolate milk
Gluten free proteins for athletes
While carbohydrates are important fuel, proteins help to rebuild broken down muscle tissue and build new muscle. Most proteins are gluten free, but be careful with sauces, marinades and any breading as they often contain gluten.
Gluten free proteins include:
- Nut butters
- Nut flours
Cross contamination is when gluten free foods are exposed to gluten containing foods. This can happen from shared equipment such as shared toaster ovens and shared knives. It can also happen from shared foods such as spreading cream cheese or peanut butter on regular bread and then using the same cream cheese on gluten free bread. Cross contamination can also sometimes happen during manufacturing as products can be produced on shared equipment with gluten containing products.
Gluten free label reading
It is important to read all ingredients labels to avoid gluten. Even if you have purchased a product in the past, labels and ingredients can change. Remember, wheat free and gluten free are not the same thing, as wheat free products can still contain barley, rye or contaminated oats.
Gluten free foods must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten to be labeled as gluten free (3). Gluten free labeling is not a requirement though, and some products that are not labeled gluten free may still be safe. However, it is important to check for “may contain” or “made on shared equipment with” as these can indicate cross contamination. If you are not sure if a product is gluten free, check the manufacturers website or give them a call to confirm.
Gluten containing grains and derivatives
Make yourself aware of other names for gluten containing ingredients such as:
- Wheat starch
- Wheat berries
- Packaged foods not labeled as gluten free
- Proteins in sauces
- Soy sauce
- Salad dressings
- Baked goods
- Chicken, turkey and beef meatballs
- Chicken and turkey burgers
Supplements that gluten free athletes might need
Many wheat products are high in fiber and magnesium, and fortified with B vitamins, calcium, zinc and iron (4). Without proper planning, a gluten free diet can lack these nutrients. Supplements might be indicated for some gluten free youth athletes, but not for all. A registered dietitian can review your child’s diet to see if they suspect any nutrient deficiencies. I never recommend supplementing iron without first checking iron labs at your child’s doctor.
Gluten free meal and snack ideas for youth athletes
- Gluten free oats prepared with milk or a milk alternative with peanut butter seed butter mixed in, a banana and 1 cup of milk
- Greek yogurt with gluten free granola and berries
- Turkey with avocado on gluten free whole grain bread and an apple
- Grilled chicken with brown rice and broccoli
- Chicken cutlet breaded in almond flour and arrowroot powder with a sweet potato and broccoli
- Meatballs prepared using oats in place of breadcrumbs with gluten free pasta and broccoli
- String cheese with an apple and gluten free crackers
- Trail mix
As you can see, it is possible to fuel your gluten free youth athlete! All it takes is some planning. If you know a gluten free athlete, share this post with them. Let’s stay connected! Sign up to join my mailing list, and join my facebook group. It is a great way to get your youth sports nutrition questions by myself, and other youth sports parents!