Olympian (and celiac sufferer) Amy Yoder Begley shares her insights and experiences.
Roughly one in 100 people in the U.S. are believed to suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine, or gluten allergies. Symptoms can include bloating, gas and diarrhea— think runner’s trots to the extreme. Amy Yoder Begley had all of these symptoms and more, along with 10 years of misdiagnosis. Finally, in 2006, with an eye toward the Beijing Olympics, she decided to learn once and for all what was wrong.
Begley’s answer was a positive celiac test, plus osteopenia, nutritional deficiencies and hypothyroidism. She began to feel better after starting a gluten-free diet and went on to earn her spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000-meter run. Since then, Begley, 34, has continued to focus on running and coaching, plus has become a source of information and inspiration for others with celiac.
We caught up with the University of Connecticut women’s cross country coach for tips about running on a gluten-free diet.
Celiac symptoms can be hard to diagnose. When did you know what was ailing you?
My symptoms started in high school with debilitating stomachaches that eventually included swelling, bloating and diarrhea. I was diagnosed with everything from lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and ovarian cysts, but nothing truly made sense. When I would severely dehydrate during short races and take three or four days to recover from workouts, my performance and my body were suffering. You have to be persistent and find a doctor willing to work with you.
Once you went gluten-free, how long did it take before you felt better?
I noticed an immediate difference. Within two weeks, my bloating was gone. It took close to six months to see a difference in my hydration levels (Begley suffered severe dehydration due to constant diarrhea) and within two years I made the Olympics. Being able to bounce back from tough workouts in a day made my training much more effective.
How did you deal with missing foods you loved?
When I realized how sick they were making me, I didn’t want them anymore. Instead I embraced the health I was getting back and enjoyed being healthy for the first time in a long time. Although, I will confess to spending a couple of weeks in a funk doing nothing but eating ice cream and reading ingredient lists. [While some celiac suffers are also lactose intolerant, Begley is not and includes dairy in her diet to boost calcium intake — and because she loves ice cream.]
Runners are susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, and adding a mal-absorptive gut to the mix compounds the issue. How do you stay on top of your iron, calcium and protein levels?
Yeah, running is tough on iron levels because it breaks down red blood cells, and celiac definitely makes it worse, leaving athletes fatigued and slow to recover. Iron supplements help and so does eat- ing iron-rich red meats like bison, but don’t overload your body with too much too fast. Calcium is so important because your body robs what it needs from your bones, which left me with osteopenia. Look for gluten-free calcium supplements and, as your body heals, experiment with adding dairy back into your diet. As for protein, I eat two to three servings of red meat per week, but up it to four servings during intense training periods, and also focus on eating plenty of vegetable proteins.
What do you do when you realize you’ve been ‘glutened’?
The first thing I do is take Tums—not sure if they really help, but I feel like I’m doing something. Then I eat lots of probiotic-rich, Greek yogurt to help my stomach heal and steel myself for intense stomachaches and frequent bathroom breaks.
What advice can you give to people who travel a lot?
Get over being shy and not wanting to upset anyone. I ask a lot of questions and am not afraid to send food back if it isn’t right. I hate to waste food, but I hate being sick even more. Always travel with some of your favorite ‘safe’ foods and seek restaurants with gluten-free menus, like Outback and P.F. Chang’s — they’ll have a better grasp of your needs. I’m also a fan of Triumph Dining cards that you can share with the kitchen staff, so they understand what ingredients you need to avoid and how to safely prepare your food.
What advice do you give someone going gluten-free by choice?
There is some good science to the possible performance benefits for athletes going gluten-free. The tough part is going about it in the right way—if people eat more fruits, vegetables and ancient grains and less processed foods, they may be pleasantly surprised. It’s important to avoid many of the GF alternatives, not only are they more expensive, but they are more processed and often more calorically dense.
This piece first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.