Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale and sometimes oats.  It is also found in foods made from these flours.  A gluten-free diet avoids all foods that contain gluten. Coeliac disease is an intolerance to gluten.  Eating gluten will interfere with the absorption of nutrients and can cause poor nutritional status along with symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and anaemia. Eating a gluten free diet can help prevent these symptoms. There is no advantage in avoiding gluten if you do not have coeliac disease.  Following a gluten-free diet is very complex and time-consuming.  Any diet restricts the type of foods that an athlete can eat is at risk of causing nutrient deficiencies and reducing the enjoyment of eating. Treatment of coeliac disease requires a gluten-free diet for life. 

Foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet:

Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley,and triticale.  Grains and foods containing hese flours also need to be avoided. Some oats have gluten, so you need to choose a gluten free oats brand. Many foods made from these grains or flours are easy to recognise, eg. breads, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits and pasta.  There are also a number of foods which contain hidden gluten in the form of additives such as thickeners, stabilisers and flavours.  People with coeliac disease need to become skilled at reading ingredient lists and recognising potential sources of gluten. 

Foods allowed on a gluten-free diet:

Plain meat, fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables, legumes, dairy products, fats and oils are all gluten-free. Grains and “starchy” foods that are gluten-free include rice, corn, maize (mielie meal, phutu), potato, sweet potato, tapioca, arrowroot, sago, soya, lentil/pea, amaranth, buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa and millet.  These foods are used to make a wide range of gluten-free products including breads, cereals, bread mixes, pasta, biscuits, crackers, cakes, and pastries.


Gluten-Free (Safe to Eat)

Contains Gluten (Must be Avoided)


Gluten-free-breads/rolls breadcrumbs made from these

Regular breads, rolls, muffins, crumpets, breadcrumbs

Cereals Grains

Specialty gluten-free cereals, rice and corn breakfast cereals without malt extract, polenta, sago

Wheat-based breakfast cereals, porridge, cous cous, barley

Pasta Noodles

Gluten-free pasta, rice noodles

Wheat-based pasta and noodles


All types – white, brown, glutinous, rice bran, rice flakes


Gluten-free (Safe to Eat)

Corn flour made from maize (NB. some corn flours are wheat based and must be avoided), rice flour, gluten-free flour (plain and self-raising)

Contains Gluten (avoid)

Wheat flour (white, wholemeal, self-raising, organic), cornflour made from wheat, rye flour, gluten flour

Biscuits, Cakes, Pastries

Gluten-free biscuits, cakes, pastries and mixes, plain rice cakes or crackers

Regular crackers, cakes, crispbreads, biscuits and pastries, flavoured rice crackers*


Fresh, canned, dried, stewed, preserved (no thickeners added)

Fruit mince*, pie fillings and commercial thickened products*


Fresh, frozen and canned (no thickeners added), fresh herbs, dried pulses, legumes and lentils, tofu

Commercial vegetables in sauce*, commercial hot chips, processed or canned legumes*


Clear soups (with gluten-free stockcubes), soups thickened with gluten-free flours, rice, gluten-free pasta, lentils and pulses

Soups containing thickeners, cereals or grains e.g. barley, noodles, pasta

Dairy Products

Fresh or powdered milk, cream, plain cheese, yoghurt*, dairy snacks*, icecream*

Malted milks, artificial cream, cheese dips*, yoghurt dips*, icecream with cone, wafer or biscuit crumbs

Sweets Sugars

Sugar (white, brown, caster), pure icing sugar, plain dark and milk chocolate, chocolate bits

Soft icing sugar, icecream toppings, sweets*, lollies*, filled chocolates*, chocolate bars* and chocolate snack foods*

Snack Foods

Plain popcorn, plain potato chips*, plain corn chips*

Pretzels, flavoured crisps*, flavoured corn chips*


Tomato sauce, gluten-free gravy mixes, gluten-free stock cubes, white vinegar, balsamic vinegar

Commercial sauces*, soy sauce*, most stock cubes and gravy mixes*, malt vinegar


Water, mineral water (plain and flavoured), soft drinks, tea, coffee, red wine, white wine

Coffee substitutes, milk flavourings, beer, drinking chocolate*

* Check the label carefully on these products. 

Reading labels:

Gluten-free” foods must not contain any detectable gluten, so, “low-gluten” products are still not suitable. It is important to read the ingredient list to check that all ingredients are gluten-free. 

What nutritional issues exist for athletes with coeliac disease?

Most carbohydrate-rich meals and snacks are based on foods containing gluten, which means athletes with coeliac disease need to be careful when choosing carbohydrate, while also making sure they get in enough carbohydrates.  Most gluten containing foods have fibre, so without these, often a low fibre diet results. Make sure to eat plenty fruits, vegetables and legumes to get in enough fibre. The following table lists some examples of sports foods which are gluten-free and also those that need to be avoided (contain gluten).  

Sports Food/Drink

Gluten-Free (Safe to Eat)

Contains Gluten (Must Be Avoided)

Sports Drinks


Meal Replacement Drinks

PowerBar Protein Plus Powder
Sustagen Sport
Ensure Hospital Formula

Sports Gels

PowerBar Gels
Gu Energy Gels

Sports Bars

Uncle Toby’s muesli bars

Electrolyte Powders



Athletes travelling abroad need to be aware of the differences in food labelling laws between various countries.  Gluten-free standards in the United Kingdom and South Africa are less strict than Australian for example.  Most airlines are able to provide gluten-free meals provided you book in advance.  Often when abroad, best options to choose are protein foods served with rice or potatoes.

Article By @futurelifeza