Should triathletes avoid wheat?

With the issues surrounding gluten well-known, does that mean all wheat-based foods are totally off-limits for triathletes?

Sliced brown bread

Wheat grain is used in all types of cuisine and plays a major part in many athletes’ diets, being a component of popular energy foods such as pasta, breakfast cereals, bread, muffins and cookies.

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With all that said, there’s strong division, both in the public arena and across the medical and nutrition communities, as to whether or not wheat is in fact a healthy food.

The major component of wheat that’s linked with many disease states is gluten, the elastic protein present in wheat, as well as other grains such as rye and barley. As such, many believe we should all be avoiding gluten, even people who don’t have symptoms of coeliac or gluten intolerance.

However, it’s not just gluten that’s the problem. Gliadin, amylopectin A and other elements in modern wheat appear to be highly inflammatory to the body’s organs and tissues, and even addictive to the brain.

There’s no doubt that processed, sugar-rich and fast-baked forms of wheat (bakery and pastry items, sweets and biscuits) pose serious health threats and digestive problems. But should whole, unprocessed forms of wheat, such as wheat berries, spelt and freekeh, also be off limits?

Research doesn’t appear to offer a definitive answer here, and it’s hard to dispute the fact that healthy ‘whole’ forms of wheat are plentiful in essential nutrients such as B vitamins, minerals and fibre. Freekeh, for example, is green (early picked) wheat, that’s roasted and sun-dried. This ‘supergrain’ variety has a low glycaemic index, is high in protein and very rich in fibre (about four times that of other grains).

As with any food of course, wheat should be assessed individually and, for the athlete, consumed in its natural form and as part of a very varied diet, where carbohydrate is predominantly supplied from natural, low-GI grains like oats, quinoa and barley, along with copious amounts of vegetables and fresh fruits.

Wheat-based foods tend to have a fairly high GI too, which can upset blood sugar balance and interfere with appetite control. Wheat can also cause digestive problems, so it’s clearly not a healthy food for all.

(Image: Emily Carlin)

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For lots more fuelling advice head to our Nutrition section