The Definitive Gluten Free Guide for Runners

Recently I went gluten free for an entire month. I ate zero wheat products – and was surprised at the results.

Wheat Field

But first, what is gluten anyway? Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s found in almost every processed food that you can buy because it’s cheap and holds food together nicely.

The main culprits include:

  • Bread (bagels, donuts, muffins or anything made with flour)
  • Pasta or couscous
  • Breakfast bars (Nutri-grain, etc.)
  • Pizza
  • Fried food (it’s breaded, after all)
  • Beer 🙁

For carb-loving runners, this could be a real problem. If you’re sensitive to gluten, you can have a variety of symptoms including rashes, fatigue, gastro-intestinal problems, and irritability.

Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis goes so far as to claim that wheat products are the biggest contributor to the nation’s obesity problem. You can see why I wanted to know if I have a sensitivity to gluten!

Keep in mind that gluten sensitivity is different than Celiac Disease, which is a severe allergic reaction to gluten that results in similar symptoms. They’re more sudden and are an auto-immune response (like those who have severe allergies to bees or peanut butter).

A Testing Mentality: Why You Should Give Up Gluten

For me, I chose to give up wheat to test my energy levels and potential sensitivity to gluten. Think of gluten sensitivity as a spectrum: the severe end is Celiac Disease but there are all levels of sensitivity. How would I know if I never tried?

Besides, I love testing. You can test almost anything:

Years ago I gave up milk products for a month.

Matt tested a new way to increase his mileage.

Sam tested a new training approach.

I’m about to start a morning and evening routine test.

You can often discover new things about yourself when you make small changes every few weeks or months. Increase productivity, get healthier, and even run faster. Testing lets you systematically change your life and keep what works and discard what doesn’t.

Leo Babauta says the most important part is to simply start. Experiment and see how your new habit impacts your life.

Giving up gluten was a worthy test to see if I had a low-grade sensitivity. In fact, about 15% of the population has some type of reaction to wheat products so the chances were relatively high that I might as well.

My Gluten Free Challenge

With encouragement from David Damron, I committed to the Gluten Free Challenge for 30 days with no cheat meals allowed. I wanted to allow my body a full month without it to see how I felt during the infamous “Gluten Challenge” (notice the lack of “free” there).

For the first week, I noticed no change. My diet consisted of mainly eggs, fruit, vegetables, corn tortilla wraps, corn chips and salsa/guacamole, lots of meat, and nuts. Besides a few corn products it was very similar to the paleo diet, though I also ate dairy, honey, gluten-free chips, and a few other compromises. Things weren’t too different than normal for me; life went on as usual.

After 1-2 weeks, I craved beer. Badly. I like a few beers occasionally so this was the tough part. I settled on red wine and hard cider – which I found to be surprising good – especially Woodchuck Cider and Angry Orchard. Just make sure you don’t buy the 3% alcohol variety. Nobody wants that…

The hardest part of this challenge was its social aspect. Wheat – and therefore gluten – is in a lot of foods that you’d never guess so it made takeout or going out to dinner difficult. Some restaurants can prepare a gluten free meal or provide an entire gluten free menu, but it helps to call first.

The real test came 30 days when Meaghan and I prepared a wheat heavy dinner. Take a look:

Gluten Challenge

After eating, I noticed a significant difference. The “post-dinner hangover” is immediate with a gluten heavy meal and all I wanted was to lie on the couch and nap. It felt just like the Turkey Coma you get on Thanksgiving.

I continue to notice this feeling after meals with a lot of wheat products. My hunch is that if you’ve never given up gluten you consider it business as usual after a big meal. But it’s probably because of all that gluten!

One more example: while I wasn’t eating any gluten products, my mother-in-law made gluten free cookies. Being the glutton that I am, I sat down with a glass of milk and ate about 15 of them. Usually this results in an immediate, “That was a bad idea!” But I felt great – no food coma or sugar high and eventual crash.

Even though I felt better after gluten free meals, I went back to eating wheat after my experiment. Socially, it’s easier, and the convenience of eating bread products (especially for a runner) can’t be overlooked.

You may experience something wildly different, but giving up wheat for a month was still one of the most valuable tests I’ve ever done. Now I limit my wheat intake and if I have an easy option, I choose gluten free.

Except beer.

Ingredients and Foods to Avoid When Going Gluten-Free

The food I’ve mentioned are easy to spot as “containing wheat” so they’re easy to avoid. But ask anyone who can’t eat gluten and it’s an often impossible task to find out if a more processed food is legitimately gluten free.

Many products (not just fancy natural foods) will have a simple “Gluten Free” of “GF” label on them under the ingredients list. It may not be right on the front of the package, but it’s worth hunting for before you try to decipher a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. If you find this label, you are good to go!

If you can’t find that label, look at the allergy statement under the ingredients list. If you see wheat, it’s off-limits. US foods should have an allergy statement, but if not, avoid any food that contains these ingredients:

  • bulgur
  • durum
  • farina
  • graham
  • kamut
  • semolina
  • spelt

It’s important for you and anyone cooking for you to know that wheat free does not mean gluten free. You’ll have to carefully evaluate the label for ingredients that could contain gluten (more on that later).

Now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the ingredients. Always avoid anything that contains barley, rye, oats, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), or any form of malt (except maltodextrin – see below).

Although oats do not technically contain gluten they are always considered to be contaminated and never safe unless specifically marked as Certified Gluten Free Oats.

These products are also never safe unless marked as gluten free: worcestershire sauce (usually made with malt vinegar), soy sauce,  teriyaki sauce, and beer (sigh).

What Ingredients Sometimes Contain Gluten?

Some ingredients fall into a gray area and have the potential to contain gluten. Eat at your own risk.

Modified Food Starch
Unless you see “Modified Wheat Starch” or “Wheat” in the allergy label, the food starch has been made with a gluten free flour. US labeling laws (Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protections Act – FALCPA) require ingredients made from wheat to be listed on a food label. So if you don’t see wheat listed, you can safely assume the starch is gluten free (usually made from corn, potato, or tapioca).

Interestingly, modified food starch made in Europe – even from wheat – is considered gluten free because it is so highly processed it removes gluten to within a safe standard.

Caramel Color
While it can be made from wheat, in North America it is made from corn. Again, if it’s made from wheat in Europe, caramel color is considered safe for gluten intolerant people because it is so highly processed.

Natural Flavor / Artificial Flavor
Although this could contain gluten, it’s almost always gluten free. Wheat cannot be hidden in any flavoring ingredients and must be listed on the label. If flavoring is made from rye or barley, it also usually says so on the label. You would probably find this ingredient in a bread product anyway – one that you would automatically avoid. Remember that “malt” is off-limits so if you see “malt flavoring” avoid it.

This follows the same rules as modified food starch and caramel color. In the US, it is gluten free or “wheat” will be listed somewhere on the label. Even if it is made from wheat it is often considered to be safe because it is so highly processed.

MSG (monosodium glutamate)
MSG is a type of salt derived from the sodium salt of glutamic acid. It’s considered safe for gluten sensitive folks but may cause other problems (migraines, nausea, diarrhea , heart rate changes) and should be avoided. Sensitivities vary: I have a friend who is actually allergic, so play at your own risk with MSG.

Blue Cheese (or other moldy cheeses)
Some claim that moldy cheeses should be avoided because the mold is grown on bread. But according to one study, blue cheese didn’t test positive for gluten. It’s probably rare that the mold spores would contain enough gluten protein to affect a gluten sensitive individual, but don’t assume moldy cheeses are safe (especially if you have Celiac disease). Always look at the packaging first.

The most common emulsifiers are eggs yolks and soy lethicin (they’re used to hold food together). It’s unclear if all emulsifiers are gluten free, so you should avoid them unless the product is clearly labeled “gluten free.”

Stabilizers can be made from many different things including gluten containing grains. Unless listed as gluten-free, avoid it. While they may be okay, there is not enough information on this topic to conclude that “stabilizers” on a food label is safe on a gluten free diet.

Always remember your mantra if you’re confused at the grocery store: When in doubt, go without!

Shopping Gluten Free (download the list!)

Going to the grocery store and buying normal food while eating gluten free is a nightmare. I feel bad for Celiac Disease sufferers who have to eat 100% gluten free – it made me crazy.

But during my experiment, I created a handy list of foods that passed the gluten test. Now you can download the same list right here:

Download the Gluten Free Shopping List!

Usually I reserve these bonus downloads for my subscribers, but today I want to make it available to everyone.

All I ask is that if you found this post or the shopping list helpful, share the love by posting this article to Facebook or tweeting the quote below!

Loving this Gluten Free post by @JasonFitz1! Check out the PDF gluten free shopping list too. Click to tweet.

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  1. So interesting – thanks for sharing! I’ve been having a little more gastrointestinal discomfort lately since increasing my mileage and who knows- maybe it’s from some sort of food sensitivity. You just don’t know for sure until you experiment. Although I have to admit, I’m not sure I’d have the patience to try it when you have little mouths to feed all day long. It’s hard enough feeding everyone without restrictions! ; )

    That being said…I’d like to make some small changes for the better. Less sugar in the house definitely. Just curious – do you drink pop Jason? I’m guessing you don’t.

    • I can’t imagine doing a challenge like this with kids – hats off to you if you succeed! I rarely drink pop or soda, but sometimes I’ll have a can of regular Coke. Maybe once a month.

  2. Jason,

    I was glad to see this post. It is a very important topic for me. I believe it is 50% of the reason I am running again. I gave up running 5 – 6 years ago because the pain in my knees got too bad to run. In March of this year my wife was challenged to read the book “Wheat Belly” that you mentioned. She had been experiencing a lot of pain throuought her body. I also read it. We were both facinated by the book. One claim that was made in the book is that wheat can create inflamation in the body. Within two weeks much of my wife’s pain was gone as were her migrains. The pain in my knees was reduced by an average of 75 – 80%. Some days I felt no pain at all. I had been reading about “barefoot running” for about a year and had been afraid to try because of my knees. While the damage in my knees will never repair itself (cartilage loss), the pain is minimal enough without swelling that between the diet and barefoot technique I have been training and competing in 5K’s since May with a personal best so far of 20:37. I am now 50 and hope to continue running to brake under the 20 minute mark, and firmly believe that the only way I will do it is wheat free.


  3. A great post Jason… and good for you for taking ‘this on’. SO many people need to understand this topic a lot better!
    I have been gluten free (nut free and just recently dairy free) for almost 11 yrs – converting fiancé and his teen children also. Everyone is feeling better for it – no stomach pains, no unnecessary tiredness or general urge to eat all the time! My teenage son (who is also autistic) has been GF for over 5 yrs, and his lean muscle and energy are neverending. It is interesting to understand the effects of gluten on learning disabilities, brain function etc. I manage his autism by food and lifestyle- never a medication.
    Gluten really is glue when it gets into the body.. and affects every organ and interferes with dealing with chronic pains and illnesses. Grant you- so do unnatural/refined foods.

    Keep up with the great posts Jason- your information and desire to get it out in a well worded and timely manner is amazing.

  4. Great article, gluten free is the way to go, but at least 2-3 weeks before a race.

    I highly recommend the book GRAIN DAMAGE – Dr. Douglas Graham !!!

  5. What a great experiment. The idea of going gluten free for life is intimidating, but I think 30 days is a reasonable time frame. I think I will try going gluten free for November (with Thanksgiving being a possible exception).

  6. Great posts, everyone!

    I’ve been gluten free (GF) for about 6 mos (since June 2012). I was ramping up my training for several races in the fall (Sept – Nov). Several learnings from my experience thusfar…(1) finding gluten free foods was difficult… initially. I lost 5% body weight (unintentionally) because I simply couldn’t get enough calories into my body. I found some good brands and everything is good now (no “cardboard” food for me!). (2) Maintaining my weight is very easy now. Like others have said, no wheat belly, I don’t retain water, etc. (3) No intestinal discomfort – WOW! this was a huge change. (4) I have less pain/ soreness and I think I recover more quickly from hard runs. (4) No post-meal “food coma.”

    Gluten free has changed how I feel – completely. Won’t go back.

  7. Going gluten free isn’t that hard once you get over the initial hurdle. I’ve been gluten-free for over 10 years now (through an intolerance rather than through choice).

    Gluten-free products have come a long way in recent years – 10 years ago they tasted bad and fell to bits (it’s the gluten that binds them together), but today there’s a wide range that are almost indistinguishable from the gluten-infested varieties. You can even get gluten-free beer that tastes pretty decent.

    When I went gluten-free I felt a whole heap better. I had more energy and I used to suffer with eczema and that vanished within about 2 months of going gluten-free.

    I have never looked back.


  1. […] a side-note, I should point out that our choice to eliminate gluten and dairy had nothing to do with the variety of fad diets that seem to be the rage right now. […]