Athletes with celiac disease: What you need to know

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It is important for athletes with celiac disease to maintain good nutrition to stay healthy and have energy for competitions. Learn tips for maintaining your gluten-free diet and athletic performance.

Key points

  • Communicating your diagnosis and gluten-free diet to your coaches, trainers and teammates can help them better support you on and off the playing field.
  • Eating high-quality gluten-free nutrients, like carbohydrates and proteins, is important to help maintain your energy levels and prevent fatigue while training and competing in your sport.
  • Calcium, vitamin D and iron are important micronutrients for a young athlete with celiac disease.
  • Prepare for travel and competitions away from home by planning ahead, researching food options at the destination and packing suitable gluten-free meals and snacks.

Properly fueling for your training and competitions with good nutrition is important for supporting your athletic performance. As an athlete living with celiac disease, you will also need to plan ahead for competitions, especially competitions away from home, to maintain your strict gluten-free diet, prevent symptoms and reach your top athletic abilities.

Considerations for athletes with celiac disease

Communication is key

At the beginning of the season, communicate your celiac disease diagnosis and the importance of following a gluten-free diet to your coaches, trainers and teammates. The more they know about you and your diagnosis, the better they can support you on and off the playing field. To help your team better understand, you may want to highlight some key terms—like 'celiac disease', 'gluten-free' and 'cross-contact' or 'contamination'—and what they mean.

If your coach or trainer will be preparing foods or buying snacks, like sports bars, or other items, like gels, on the day of your competition, make sure they understand what ‘gluten-free’ means and the importance of avoiding gluten cross-contact. You may want to provide them with some suggestions of gluten-free food options that you know are safe and will support your athletic performance.

Fueling with gluten-free carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the most important fuel source for an athlete. Carbohydrate foods, like vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy, break down in the body and provide it with its preferred source of energy, glucose (sugar).

While there are naturally gluten-free sources of carbohydrates, many carbohydrates like breads, pastas and grains contain gluten and are traditionally used to fuel athletes. This can sometimes be challenging for someone who has celiac disease. Planning ahead for training and competitions by packing suitable meals and snacks, or researching food options at your sports venue, are all ways to help you maintain your gluten-free diet, avoid symptoms on the day of your competition and perform at your best.

Here are some examples of gluten-free carbohydrates for athletes with celiac disease:

  • gluten-free oats and oatmeal
  • potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • quinoa
  • rice
  • beans and lentils
  • gluten-free pastas that use rice, gluten-free grains or beans
    • Bonus: Some gluten-free grains like quinoa, or pastas made from legumes like black beans or chickpeas, are also a good source of protein, which can make for a perfect post-training meal to repair and grow muscles
  • fruits like bananas, apples, oranges or grapes

For more information on sports nutrition, visit the AboutKidsHealth Sports nutrition page.

Nutrients of concern for athletes with celiac disease

Calcium, vitamin D and iron are important nutrients for any growing athlete:

  • Calcium and vitamin D play an important role in building and maintaining strong bones and teeth.
  • Iron carries oxygen to your body’s tissues and muscles.

These nutrients are especially important to athletes who have recently been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease can make it hard for your body to absorb nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and iron. When these nutrients are low, you may be at higher risk of injury and poor athletic performance.

If your health-care provider has asked you to take a supplement for these nutrients, it is important that you follow their instructions and take the supplements as prescribed.

Eating well-balanced meals and snacks can ensure that you get enough calcium, vitamin D and iron from the foods you eat. Here are some foods you can try:

Calcium

  • dairy and dairy products
  • fortified plant-based beverages like soy beverage or orange juice
  • leafy greens like spinach and broccoli
  • fish

Vitamin D

  • fortified beverages like soy beverage, orange juice and milk
  • fatty fish like tuna, salmon and sardines

Iron

  • red meat
  • pork
  • poultry
  • seafood
  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • iron-fortified grain products like cereals and quinoa
  • tofu

To learn more about the important roles of calcium, vitamin D and iron, visit these AboutKidsHealth pages:

Bone health: The role of calcium and vitamin D

Iron: Guidelines to improve your child’s intake

Considerations for travelling with your team as an athlete with celiac disease

Travelling with your sports team can be an exciting way to see new places with teammates and compete against new teams. Planning ahead for away games, tournaments or competitions is important so that you have something safe to eat to fuel your athletic performance. Here are some tips and considerations as a travelling athlete with celiac disease:

  • See if your team can book a hotel room or accommodation that has access to a kitchenette or mini-fridge and microwave so that you can use kitchen equipment to store and prepare gluten-free meals and snacks.
  • If the hotel that your team is staying at offers breakfast, contact the hotel in advance to see what foods are available and if they offer gluten-free options.
  • If travelling by car or bus, pack portable travel foods like gluten-free bars, nuts and seeds, dried gluten-free cereals, nut butters, applesauce, corn tortillas or gluten-free crackers. Make sure to also drink plenty of water to stay hydrated!
  • Bring your own food for your competition. Pack non-perishable, shelf-stable foods like gluten-free bars, trail mix, instant gluten-free oatmeal packages, crackers and cereals, canned beans, canned fish and dried fruit.
  • Pack a can opener, cutting board, utensils, napkins, zip lock bags, tin foil or parchment paper and disposable dishes so that you can prepare and eat foods in your hotel room.
  • Research your destination and food options. You may want to stock up on fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products at a local grocery store to keep in your hotel fridge.
  • Learn about the fast-food options near the hotel or venue in case you need something in a pinch.
  • If you will be sharing a hotel room with other teammates, make sure they understand what celiac disease is and why it is important for you to follow a strict gluten-free diet. You may want to clearly label any food that you bring so that it doesn’t get mixed up with your teammates’ foods or come in contact with gluten-containing foods.

Prepare food in your hotel room

  • Keep your mini-fridge stocked with healthy, grab-and-go food options like apples, yogurt cups, baby carrots, celery, snap peas, cheese slices, chocolate milk or hummus.
  • Use the microwave to make gluten-free oatmeal, veggie omelette in a mug, steamed rice and veggies, baked sweet potato, salmon (in parchment paper) or black bean and cheese quesadillas.
  • Use the coffee maker to make instant gluten-free oatmeal, gluten-free instant soups or hard-boiled eggs.
  • Make grilled sandwiches or wraps with cheese, hummus, packaged gluten-free deli meat or canned fish by using the hotel room iron (just make sure you turn off the steam). Place all your ingredients between two slices of gluten-free bread and lightly butter the outside. Wrap your sandwich in tinfoil or parchment paper and lightly press the iron down and heat until the outsides of your sandwich are golden brown.

Eating out while at competitions

  • Stick to restaurants and fast-food spots that you are familiar with and that have gluten-free options.
  • Review menus ahead of time for gluten-free options. Call ahead to see if the restaurant can accommodate your diagnosis of celiac disease and the strict gluten-free diet.
  • Choose quality carbohydrate sources like rice, quinoa or gluten-free pasta to help fuel for your competitions. Include lean protein sources like chicken, fish, beans or tofu, and add a side of veggies.
  • Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Last updated: September 26th 2023