Athletic teens and celiac disease

Many carbohydrate options are available on a gluten-free diet.

by Heather Demeritte — 

Cindy was the star runner on her track team, and the coach praised her consistent effort. But after a couple months of training, he noticed a rapid decline in her performance. She complained of fatigue, achy muscles and chronic diarrhea. He suspected the flu, but after a month of watching Cindy losing weight and momentum, he knew it was more than a virus. He urged her parents to take her to a physician. After extensive blood work, Cindy was diagnosed with celiac disease, or CD.

Cindy is not alone. In the U.S., one in 133 are affected with CD, an autoimmune disease where the body mistakenly reacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, as if it were ingested poison that destroys the part of the small intestine that absorbs vital nutrients. An extended period of being undiagnosed or misdiagnosed can lead to serious illness such as malnutrition, anemia, weak bones, and a delay in growth and puberty.

Teens may be short or underweight; girls may menstruate later; and facial hair and voice changes may occur later in boys. Treatment is attainable, and the damage can be reversible with strict abstention from gluten. But athletes, especially teenagers, have a unique challenge. How can they avoid gluten and fuel themselves for peak performance?

Both strength and endurance athletes require more calories from protein and carbohydrates, but with careful preparation, CD does not have to interfere with athletic training. A consultation with a registered dietitian is important to cover all the dietary needs of a teenage athlete. Learning about safe and nutritious foods will enhance all athletes’ competence and performance.

Many carbohydrate options are available on a gluten-free diet. Most grocery stores carry gluten-free breads, energy bars and cereals. Bananas, rice, corn and all varieties of potatoes are sustainable and nutritious.

Good sources of protein are some soy and milk products, eggs, fish and lean meats. Although many athletes supplement with creatine, pediatricians warn that excessive amounts of protein can cause kidney damage in teenagers.

An athlete can consume adequate vitamins and minerals from natural food sources like fruits and vegetables, but CD can lead to malabsorption of essential nutrients, such as iron and calcium. Supplements may be needed, but patients should discuss dietary needs with their physician before taking them.

When teenage athletes travel for away games, it is best to pack meals and snacks. They may feel embarrassed about being different, but understanding the importance of their dietary restrictions may help them accept their difference. Packing nutritious snacks, such as trail mix, gluten-free bars or a PBJ sandwich on gluten-free bread, can make eating convenient, fast, enjoyable and perhaps help set an example for other teens to try more healthful foods.

Today, Cindy crosses the finish line at record speed. With knowledge, preparation and support from her family and coach, Cindy does not allow CD to slow her down.


Heather Demeritte is a fitness instructor and dance teacher who is certified by the American Council of Exercise with a degree in early childhood development. She is the author of Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free for the Frugal and Lazy Cook.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 28, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2009.

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