Hypoallergenic: My Journey As A Gluten-Free, Low-Allergen Bodybuilder

Bodybuilder Alex Silva talks about his gluten allergy, and shares nutrition and supplementation tips for the gluten-free athlete on how to help build muscle.

Gluten-free bodybuildingMy great aunt, my aunt, my sister.  Multiple people in my family, with a hereditary disease that I promised myself, as an invincible teen, I would never give in to.

In November 2007 during my sophomore year of college, I decided that I wanted to pursue bodybuilding as a lifestyle, rather than as a simple fascination.  I took to internet bodybuilding sites, compiling advice from the likes of Natural Mr. Olympia John Hansen and natural bodybuilder Hugo Rivera.  I was ready to work hard.

At the same time, however, my training and daily life in general were chronically impeded by constant fatigue, mouth sores, bloating, gas, and other gastrointestinal issues.  I literally lived life minute-by-minute, waiting for the chance to be in private to relieve gas.  Not the most comfortable situation to experience, or even write about.  With lactose intolerance as my first guess, I cut out dairy, continuing to eat my daily subs, protein bars, and turkey sandwiches on wheat.  However, the problems persisted, and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “There is no WAY that had dairy in it!” on multiple occasions.

Eventually, it was time to face facts and attempt a simple elimination diet, knowing the ailments of my family members.  Within one week of cutting wheat, oats, and barley products from my diet, I was feeling remarkably better.  It was clear; I, like many of my relatives, suffered from intolerance to gluten.

Celiac Disease, the most severe, “disease” form of gluten intolerance, is an incurable auto-immune condition in which the body is unable to process gluten, a protein in wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and various other grain products.  Symptoms of the inability to digest gluten include many of those from which I suffered, all the way to seizures and chronic malnutrition (due to gluten destroying the intestinal walls) for those most severely affected.  The only way to treat the disorder is to eliminate gluten-containing products from one’s diet (including but not limited to oats, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt).

Despite the seemingly alien nature of this disease (“You can’t eat bread?!”), the prevalence of Celiac Disease is surprising.  To put it in perspective, in 2007, Celiac Sprue affected more people in the United States than Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis combined. (www.celiac.com)

As a bodybuilder, the impact of Celiac Disease is painfully tangible and immediate.  A blissfully ignorant Celiac victim may be attempting to get stronger on oats, whole grain products, and healthy cereals, all while these products are sapping strength and motivation, and, in some cases, slowly killing.  Other effects of Celiac especially important to a bodybuilder include water retention, decreased nutrient uptake, and gluten-induced cravings, causing unwanted overeating.  Also, gluten intolerance often leads to other dietary restrictions, including lactose intolerance, from which I also suffer.

Other food intolerances (possibly linked to Celiac) on my list include peanuts, sensitivity to all grains (including rice and corn), casein/whey, crabs, upset stomach with apples and blueberries, and my body’s rejection of generally anything in excess (which tends to be the mentality of many bodybuilders).

All of these dietary restrictions make it extremely complex to eat on a daily basis, much less as a bodybuilder.  Since November of 2007, my bodybuilding journey has revolved around finding foods that work for my goals as a bodybuilder, while avoiding foods that I have trouble digesting (the number of which has drastically increased over the years).  During the next few weeks, I will share three years’ experience of gluten-free, hypoallergenic dieting with you, hopefully shedding some light on an often overlooked issue that is more widespread than anyone likes to think.

Spices and spice mixes

Glutenus Maximus: Part I

As my first bit of insight into living as a gluten-free bodybuilder, I am going to give you an overview of avoiding gluten in products that you may consume every day.

The greatest piece of advice for anyone living with Celiac: “Always read the label!!”

The labels of many packaged foods now list, under “Ingredients”, the list of allergens in the food (including soy, wheat, milk, peanuts, etc).  This will be an automatic indicator of the presence of gluten (specifically wheat).  If allergens are not listed, an inventory of ingredients to watch out for and research that I have relied on when eating gluten free include:

  • “Seasoned” anything.
  • “Malted” ingredients.
  • “Modified food starch” – look this one up, many products now use corn or other gluten-free food starches with Celiac awareness on the rise.

Other foods and warning signs to watch for:

  • “Wheat-free” does NOT always mean gluten-free! Spelt or other gluten-containing grains may be used as a wheat substitute.
  • “Gluten-free” products containing oats, unless it is specified that the oats passed specific gluten screening tests (often the Elisa test).
  • Spice medleys, such as a steak seasoning, which often contain modified food starch.
  • Dark sauces (i.e. BBQ sauces, soy sauce) often contain wheat or other gluten products.
  • Large chicken breasts (crucial for any bodybuilding diet) are often injected with gluten-containing additives during processing in order to make them more “plump.”

Another source of gluten that concerns bodybuilders is dietary supplements.  This can come in the form of either cross-contaminated supplements processed in shared manufacturing facilities, or supplements directly containing gluten ingredients.  Some products to look into before consuming include:

  • Pills – coatings and capsules sometimes contain gluten ingredients as binders.
  • Meal Replacement Powders (MRPs) – these products often contain “healthy carbs” in the form of barley and oats (both containing gluten).
  • Protein bars – I have occasionally found these to contain wheat starch or “modified food starch” in the form of wheat.
  • Products with flavors like “Cookies and Cream,” “Cookie Dough,” and the like – these products will often actually contain the food product named in the flavor (cookies, cookie dough), which are made with wheat flour.

In my experience, the majority of supplements do not contain gluten.  However, as a gluten-free bodybuilder, it is important to always be certain that products are not contaminated or made with gluten ingredients.

With even this bit of information and simple list of foods and ingredients to avoid, a bodybuilder with gluten sensitivity or full-blown Celiac may be able to feel much better over time, and make some serious gains in the process!

I encourage anyone with stories of their own experiences with gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, or any other food allergies that impact their bodybuilding lifestyle, to write to me, and I will integrate these stories into future articles.

NOTE: The content provided in this article is for recreational purposes only and the information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.  I am not a professional on this subject, and the information provided herein is strictly based on anecdotal evidence and should not be used in the place of professional guidance.  If you think you may have Celiac Disease, seek the advice of a medical professional.