Less than one year ago, I was so sick that I could not walk down the hall without being completely exhausted. I started getting a little fatigued in March of 2012, DNFed a race in April, and by June I was bed-ridden. Too exhausted to go anywhere. I and my doctors took educated guesses but got nowhere. We looked at iron deficiency, I tired eating organic foods, I had lots of tests, and even an MRI. No answers. Finally in September, I tried a gluten-free diet. I was clearly improved after 2 weeks. After about 6 weeks, I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time. Gluten was obviously the culprit. Gluten makes me fatigued. If I have a little gluten, I feel a little fatigued. If I have a lot, I get very fatigued.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Gluten is not just in bread. gluten is used as a binding ingredient in many different foods.
How I Avoid Gluten
Since gluten is such a wonderful ingredient to use, it is terribly difficult to avoid. While packages are getting better about identifying wheat and/or gluten, there are still a lot of hidden dangers out there. Here are my basic strategies to avoid gluten:
- The best way to avoid gluten is to stick with simple, whole foods that you prepare and cook yourself. If an item has more than two or three ingredients, I try to avoid it.
- I avoid eating out as much as possible. I used to eat out a lot, but now I consider it dangerous. Restaurants may have gluten-free menus, but that does not guarantee that the cooks and servers were careful in preparing and delivering the food. When I do eat out, I try to go for simple foods. Steak, potato (not fries), and plain veggies are my staples when eating out.
- Pot lucks meals are great for bonding with people, but represent a minefield. See rules 1 and 2.
- When you decide you want to add another food to your diet, make sure you only try one new food item! That way, if you feel fatigued the next day you will be able to know when/where it happened.
Recovering from Gluten
My initial recovery from the fatigue caused by gluten was very challenging. The gluten issue made my digestive system very weak. As a result, I could not effectively digest many foods that do not have gluten. It was months before I could once again eat meat, ice cream, and other essentials of daily living.
I started with a very short list of foods: rice, quinoa, corn. I also used a gluten-free vegetable-based protein powder to make sure I got enough protein. I had trouble getting enough calories while my digestive system recovered. I avoided dairy and quickly realized that most meats were too tough to digest well. I tested one new food each day until I figured out a list that I could handle
My weight dropped 20 pounds in two weeks while I struggled to find foods I could digest easily. Peanut butter and raisins became important sources of calories for me in those early days. They are packed with nutrients AND they provided enough calories to maintain my weight. They still remain staples of my diet. Every time I go away for a day or more I make sure too pack peanuts and raisins. When I struggle to find safe food, I can rely on my stockpile of peanuts and raisins. Manna!
In the 8 months since I went gluten-free, I have been able to add many foods back into my diet that were initially too difficult to digest. I can eat meat once again, but not very frequently. A simple cut of steak is 10 times easier to digest than ground and/or processed meat. I can order a gluten-free pizza at a trusted restaurant about once a week without concern, just not within a week of a race.
From time to time, a restaurant or a friend will inadvertently include gluten in my food. I will feel it the next day. Even if it was a minute amount of cross-contamination, I can tell. This is especially true on days where I am pressing my limits on speed and endurance. A small amount of gluten will be evident in the fact that I just can’t maintain the pace I would otherwise be able to manage.
In order to recover as quickly as possible, I use the following strategies:
- Return to the simplest foods that aided my initial recovery.
- Take Gluten-Ease or any other source of gluten enzymes. This will not cure you immediately, but it will expedite the elimination of the gluten that is in the system still causing damage.
- Take probiotic capsules and eat yogurt. This will help restore balance to your digestive system more quickly.
- Take a glutamine supplement. Not only does it help recover from a running workout, but it also helps rebuild the lining of your intestines that was damaged by gluten.
If you have a relatively small gluten intolerance like me, it may only take a few days to recover. If you have Celiac disease, it may take months. Eat clean until you feel better and beyond!
A Word About Gluten-Free Products
Gluten-free is a tricky term that can mean many different things. Here is what I have learned:
- To be sure that a product is truly gluten-free, it must claim on the package that the product is routinely tested to make sure there is no cross-contamination. The second-best indicator is if the package claims that it is produced in a wheat and gluten-free facility.
- “Naturally gluten free” means that they have not tested the product for contamination. They did not purposefully add gluten, but you don’t know if it is contaminated or not.
- Most things labeled as gluten-free are what I call “replacement products” because they are made to replace items made with wheat and or gluten. These products are never really the same as their wheat-based counter-part. I have never had a gluten-free bread that tasted or acted like bread. You will be much happier if you do not expect replacement products to be the same as what they replace.
In the end, my best advice is to stick with simple foods. The staples of my current diet are:
- plain yogurt
- fruit – especially berries
- brown rice
- olive oil
- sweet potatoes
- any vegetable that is colorful and yummy
- plant-based protein powder
- glutamine supplement
- cheese [I still can't process many cheeses. Colby Jack is my staple]
- ice cream [I try to stick with ice cream that has 5 or fewer ingredients.]
I am NOT saying that this should be your diet! I am saying that you need to find the foods that your digestive system is good with AND provides the nutrition that you need to run hard and be healthy. This was my journey, and I am still learning as I go.
Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!
The Gift of Running,by P. Mark Taylor, is available in both paperback & e-book
- Paperback Version – Amazon.com $9.00
- Ebook Version – Kindle Store $2.99
- Ebook Version for Nook $2.99