According to data from the Italian Ministry of Health, about 1 percent of Italians are affected by celiac disease. If this percentage seems insignificant to you, think about the fact that in numbers it means that about 600,000 people suffer from it, even though-until 2016-it had only been diagnosed in just over 198,000 Italians. In short, there are many celiacs who do not know they are celiac even though they suffer from the consequences of this condition. 70% are women, who are also those who suffer the most serious complications of this disease.
What it is and what causes celiac disease
As the Ministry of Health reports, “Celiac disease is a permanent inflammatory-based disease of the small intestine, characterized by destruction of the mucosa of this intestinal tract. It is caused by an autoimmune reaction to gluten, the alcohol-soluble protein fraction of some grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Many foods contain these grains, the most common being bread, pizza, pasta, and cookies.”
Suffering from celiac disease therefore does not mean having only digestive disorders or intestinal discomfort but is something much more serious and debilitating, particularly for women who may suffer it in the form of fertility disorders, difficulties in pregnancy, and being more exposed physiologically to iron deficiency, folic acid deficiency, and osteoporosis.
The only known therapy is a diet of total deprivation of gluten, which, as you know, is contained in a great many foods central to the Mediterranean diet and Italian cuisine, such as bread, pasta, cookies, and pizza.
Awareness of this has increased in recent years, and it is now common to find gluten-free foods at the supermarket and gluten-free courses at restaurants. It is precisely food, which is so central to this condition and its treatment, that leads us to focus on something that is of more interest to sportsmen and women, namely: can those with celiac disease play sports? The answer is: yes, without a doubt. Gluten deprivation does not mean depriving oneself of carbohydrates but only involves carbohydrate endowment from other sources. There are many examples of top-level athletes who are celiac, including rugby player Martin Castrogiovanni and tennis players Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova. In short, being an athlete with celiac disease means adopting a different but no less effective diet. Different is the issue concerning many non-celiac athletes who have embraced a gluten-free diet: there is no evidence that eliminating gluten improves athletic performance while there is certainty that gluten is harmful to those with celiac disease.
The celiac diet for the runners
If you cut gluten off, what is left? Very much so! Without prejudice to the need for a balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, fats of both animal and vegetable origin, and proteins with the same origin, there remain only the choice of the most appropriate foods. Which ones?
– Carbohydrates: having eliminated pasta with gluten, you can replace it with gluten-free pasta or with foods that are naturally free of it, such as brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and corn or grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. However, there are some grains to avoid, such as wheat, kamut, rye, barley, oats, bulgur, couscous, spelt, and seitan, among the most common
– Fats: as we have already seen, they can be of both vegetable and animal origin as long as they are not prepared from foods that contain it, as in the case of some sausages and, for example, breaded cutlets (applies to both meat and fish)
– Protein: pumpkin, flaxseed, peas, again brown rice and quinoa
To dispel any doubts, the AIC – Italian Celiac Association provides a practical ABC of the celiac’s diet that lists all the foods recommended, those moderately discouraged and those absolutely to be avoided.
We always tell you that nutrition is an integral part of sports training. If you have celiac disease, you have no reason to think you cannot be an athlete; on the contrary: physical activity is always recommended, whether or not you have celiac disease. No need to point it out, huh?