How to Eat Gluten-Free for Running if You Have Celiac Disease

Expert advice for keeping your energy levels up and recovery going strong, sans gluten.

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Any athlete who’s battled hunger pangs or completely bonked during a run understands the importance of proper fueling.

Not only does the right nutrition provide you the energy needed to crush your kilometres, it can also enhance performance, prevent muscle breakdown, and boost recovery, Danielle Crumble Smith, RDN, a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching and a runner, tells Runner’s World.

Our bodies rely on carbs as the primary energy source during exercise, says Crumble Smith. That’s why you commonly see foods like bagels, crackers, pretzels, chews, and gels used for pre and mid-workout fueling. For runners with celiac disease, though, it’s not as simple as wolfing down the nearest carb-rich snack.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where ingesting gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—causes damage in the small intestine that impairs nutrient absorption, says Crumble Smith.

Celiac can trigger wide-ranging symptoms, from digestive issues (think: diarrhoea, bloating, and stomach pain) to malnutrition, extreme fatigue, joint pain, and even mood disorders, according to Crumble Smith, who has celiac disease herself. She’s not alone: More than 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with the condition, reports Johns Hopkins Medicine, and many more likely suffer from it. In fact, an estimated 0.5 to 1 percent of the population is celiac, per a 2019 research review.

Because many commercial energy gels, bars, and chews may contain gluten, it can be tough for runners with celiac to find gluten-free fuel, says Crumble Smith. Moreover, many snacks provided at races are not gluten-free, she adds. Plus, due to lack of regulations around food labels, deciphering which products are celiac-safe and which should be avoided can be a game of mental gymnastics, Amanda Bryant, RD, a registered dietitian specialising in digestive diseases at Oregon Health and Science University, tells Runner’s World.

Avoiding gluten is critical for those with celiac. “It can be enticing to think that a ‘little bit’ of a gluten-containing item will be okay, but there are negative impacts that we can’t see,” says Crumble Smith, like malabsorption of essential nutrients, including iron and calcium. Another drawback: “Even minor gluten exposure can cause GI distress, impairing a runner’s performance,” she adds.

The good news: More and more companies are making gluten-free products, increasing the variety of fueling options for celiac runners. Compared to one to two decades ago, “it’s much easier to find safe products,” says Bryant.

We tapped three registered dietitians for advice on fueling runs while still following a gluten-free diet. From deciphering food labels to making DIY gluten-free snacks, here’s what you need to know.

8 Tips for Fueling With a Gluten-Free Diet

1. Scrutinise food labels

To prevent accidental gluten exposure, which can wreak havoc on your runs and general health, look for “certified gluten-free” on food labels. This indicates a product has been verified by an independent party as gluten-free. But because not all gluten-free products are labelled as such, and because other products may seem safe but in reality contain hidden sources of gluten, it helps to know which keywords to watch for when evaluating labels.

When Crumble Smith was first diagnosed with celiac disease, she unintentionally consumed gluten from foods she didn’t suspect, like sushi, soups, and taco seasoning mixes. “I didn’t think about checking the ingredients,” she recalls. “I just assumed they would be gluten-free.”

Common gluten-containing ingredients to avoid, according to Crumble Smith, include:

  • Malt, barley malt, and malt vinegar
  • Brown rice syrup, if made with barley enzymes
  • General “starches,” like food starch, hydrolyzed starch, and modified starch, as these are often wheat starches (unless labelled as gluten-free)
  • Soy sauce
  • Imitation crab
  • Soups, since wheat is often used as a thickener
  • General spice blends and seasoning mixes, as they can contain wheat starch as a filler
  • Teriyaki-flavoured jerky, since it often contains soy sauce (some use Tamari instead, which is gluten-free)
  •  Blue cheese, as this may use penicillium derived from wheat. Gluten levels in blue cheese are likely low, but to be safe, opt for gluten-free certified blue cheeses.
  • Oats. Even though oats are naturally gluten-free, if they are not labelled “gluten-free” chances are they have come into contact with wheat products, either during the growing or production processes. As such, the oats could contain fragments of wheat particles.

2. Focus on what you can eat

When you’re navigating nutrition with celiac, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by things you can’t eat, but a better strategy is to focus on all that you can eat. It may surprise you to learn “there are so many nutrient-dense foods that are naturally gluten-free,” says Crumble Smith. Foods like fruits, vegetables, non-breaded meat and poultry, seafood, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, and edamame are all safe for folks with celiac.

In the carb category specifically, there are a bunch of options, like amaranth, arrowroot, beans, buckwheat groats (also known as kasha), cassava, corn, millet, nut flours, potatoes, quinoa, rice, sorghum, tapioca, teff, and yucca, says Crumble Smith. Also encouraging: Bread lovers can still get their fix with products like Udi’s Gluten-free Multigrain Sandwich Bread and B Free Gluten Free Seeded Bread, she adds.

On the whole, “consuming a balanced diet that focuses on whole, unprocessed food sources is a great way to fuel your body and fuel your training,” says Crumble Smith.

3. Contact companies to learn more

If you’re wanting to eat a product but unsure if it’s gluten-free, contact the company (either through their website or social media) and ask about the ingredients and manufacturing process, suggests Bryant. Hopefully, they’ll be transparent. And if not? “Then maybe that’s not a company that you want to support or purchase from,” she says.

4. Prepare homemade snacks

To avoid unintentionally consuming gluten, concoct your own fuel at home. Crumble Smith recommends whipping up protein energy balls, energy bars, or breakfast cookies using gluten-free ingredients like dates, nuts, and gluten-free oats. “There are many gluten-free energy snack recipes online,” she says. “Experiment to find what works best for you.”

The busy runner can make a batch ahead of time—Crumble Smith recommends no-bake energy balls—and pop them in the freezer for use in the weeks to come. Bonus: This is a stellar way to save money and can end up being more nutrient-dense than buying pre-made fuel, she says.

5. Test out different gluten-free products for a midrun boost

For runs longer than 60 minutes, it’s generally recommended to intake carbs during the run to avoid bonking. Now, everyone’s stomach is different, so for any runner—whether they have celiac or not—it’s important to experiment with mid run fueling to find what works best.

Crumble Smith recommends celiac athletes try whole foods, like bananas, oranges, potatoes, or dates. Or, they can consider gluten-free packaged products like GoMacroBars, Larabars, RX Bars, Aloha Bars, or Snyder’s Gluten Free pretzels.

For athletes who prefer their fuel in chew or gel form, she recommends Skratch Labs Chews, Clif Bloks, and Bonk Breaker Chews—all of which are widely available. Another option: Maurten gels, which Kristy Baumann, RD, LD, a Minnesota-based registered dietitian who works with runners, says are a popular choice for her gluten-free athletes.

If you’re running a race longer than an hour, research beforehand what snacks will be passed out on the course and pack your own fuel if needed.

6. Plan ahead for post run nutrition

Carbs aren’t just important before or during a run—you also want to eat them post workout to help facilitate muscle repair and glycogen restoration, explains Crumble Smith.

Pairing carbs with protein can be especially helpful for accelerating recovery and boosting performance in the future, she adds. She recommends folks with celiac plan post run meals and snacks in advance to ensure a mix of gluten-free protein and carbs. Examples include sweet potatoes, rice, or quinoa with grilled chicken or salmon; chickpea or lentil pasta; a gluten-free sandwich or wrap; or tuna with gluten-free crackers, hummus, or guacamole.

Travelling for a race? “Look up restaurants in the area before you go and plan what you’re going to have,” says Crumble Smith. “Don’t be afraid to call the restaurant and explain your needs so that you can confidently know which options are safe.” Also, pack extra gluten-free snacks—and lots of ‘em—just in case things don’t go as planned. “I always like to bring more than I think I’ll need just to be safe,” says Crumble Smith.

7. Get regular health screens

Because malabsorption can occur with celiac, Crumble Smith suggests folks who are newly diagnosed get regularly checked for deficiencies like iron and B12 to prevent health issues and negative impacts on performance. She suggests scheduling regular appointments with a healthcare provider and asking about supplementation if needed.

Beyond that, Crumble Smith advises incorporating foods that naturally contain these nutrients into your diet. Good sources of B12 include eggs, milk, yoghurt, beef, certain fish (like tuna, trout, and salmon) and fortified nutritional yeast (a vegan-friendly option), she says.

Heme iron (a type of iron that is easily absorbed) is found in animal sources like liver, beef, chicken thighs, and dark-meat poultry. Non-heme iron, which is not as easily absorbed, is found in beans, legumes (like white beans, lentils, and black beans), and spinach. Increase absorption of nonheme iron by pairing it with vitamin C-rich foods, like tomatoes, bell pepper, or oranges, per Crumble Smith.

8. Find community

Living with celiac can sometimes feel isolating and overwhelming, says Crumble Smith. So connecting with others who understand what you’re going through can be a big help, as can having a list of trusted resources so you stay updated on safe products.

To that end, Crumble Smith recommends joining online forums, Facebook groups, or local meet-ups focused on gluten-free living or running, so you can share experiences and get advice on gluten-free products or strategies. She recommends the Celiac Disease Foundation as a great general resource, and Facebook groups for specific gluten-free product recommendations.

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