Nutrition Buzzwords, Part 2

We talked about Organic food and GMO’s, now I’ll move onto some other buzzwords that are just as controversial as Part 1, and will invoke both positive and negative responses from a lot of people. Out in the field, I hear about these a lot. So I want to give a bit of info on each. Today’s post is about vegan, gluten free and the Paleo Diet. And I want to say, I am coming for the standpoint of an athlete. For the average person, things might be a bit different. Athletes do have different nutritional needs at times.

Vegan– Being a vegan means you don’t eat, or use anything that was made with animal products. Some vegans are vegan for health reasons, others are ethical and want to promote animal rights/environmental issues and some are a combination of both. In fact, I have never met a vegan who wasn’t vegan due to both health and ethical reasons.

Being a vegan, or veganism really seemed to take off in the early 200o’s. I would say I hadn’t met one vegan until 2006/2007. I knew many vegetarians, but being vegan was more extreme. It has gotten a lot easier in the past 5 years to be vegan and this is shown through the popularity of vegan foods, websites, restaurants, etc. I won’t go as far as to say it’s easy to be vegan, however it’s certainly easier to be vegan now then it was years ago. Where you live can also make it more or less challenging. In larger cities, and in states like Oregon and California, it’s quite easy to find a large assortment of restaurants catering to vegans. In rural towns, or in cities devoted to say the cattle industry, it can be a bit tougher. So, do you want to be vegan?


  • Being vegan has been shown to reduce heart disease, diabetes, cancer, lower blood pressure, cholesterol and more
  • You’ll generally have a higher intake of fiber, lower calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, and take in a greater amounts of folic acid, Vit C and E and phytochemicals.
  • You’re doing something you feel is positive to help out the environment, animal rights and your health
  • Healthy weight-I don’t have the research on this, but I have never met an overweight vegan.


  • It can be a challenge to figure out which foods to eat to make sure you are getting all the correct nutrients
  • Vegan diets can be lower in omega 3’s, Vit D, Calcium, Zinc, B-12 and protein and need to eat fortified foods, or take supplements to get some of these key nutrients.
  • You could have a tougher time with restaurants, travel, eating out, etc.

There are some famous vegans today, and the one that a lot of people know, is Bill Clinton.  Today vegans make up an estimated 1-3% of the population. And thankfully, because of the increased demand of being vegan, there are more choices in foods, supplements, protein powders, restaurants, etc. There are even a large number of endurance athletes that are vegan, or have at least dabbled in it. If you aren’t careful, and just decide to be vegan without exploring books, website, blogs or a doctor, you could become deficient very quickly in needed nutrients. So please, before you just jump into veganism, do some research. A good resource is my friend and cardiologist Heather Shenkman. Heather is also a vegan triathlete who resides in LA. She has a very helpful blog called that includes good recipes and chronicles her life as a vegan triathlete.

Gluten Free

This term has quickly gained a stronghold in the endurance community, and while I do think there are some people with true gluten sensitivities, I also do think it’s a fad. I want to explain a few different terms, then give some pros and cons.

What is gluten: Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat. Gluten both nourishes plant embryos during germination and later affects the elasticity of dough, which in turn affects the chewiness of baked wheat products (and makes them yummy).

Wheat Allergy:  This is an allergy to wheat where there is an overreaction of the immune system to the wheat protein. When the food protein is ingested, it can trigger an allergic reaction that may include a range of symptoms from mild symptoms (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc.) to severe symptoms (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.). A food allergy can be potentially fatal. Approximately .4 % of kids, and less than .1% of adults have a wheat allergy.

Celiacs Disease: This is an actual disease where the small intestine is effected, and is caused by an abnormal immune reaction to gluten. Celiacs disease can be very hard to diagnose, and must be done by a doctor, most likely a gastroenterologist. If someone with Celiacs eats wheat, they can have intestinal damage, or even malnutrition. Approximately 1/133 people or .007% of the population has Celiacs Disease.

Gluten Sensitivity: This is a wide category and people can have varying levels of gluten sensitivity or intolerance. This is the area I come across most in the endurance world. There are definitely people that are gluten sensitive, but I do believe others are using it as a way to eat low carb, or to just jump on a fad. There is no known number of people with gluten sensitivity as with the varying levels of sensitivity and with little way to collect data, we don’t have a number. Scientists can approximate that 5-6% of the population has a gluten sensitivity. If you need further understanding please read the article cited below. One of my professors from Scotland shared this with us.

The lowdown on celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and celebrity wheat-bashing: In conversation with Dr Alessio Fasano

At the end of the article, Dr Alessio explains and rebuts the argument that our bodies can not handle wheat gluten. Critics are saying that since we have only been eating wheat for 6-7000 years, our bodies can’t properly digest the wheat, causing inflammation. This just isn’t the case. Go to pubmed to find further articles.

There are two other things that I want to mention here. There are two possibilities for athletes who think they might be gluten sensitive, to really be not. Here they are.

1. The first one is kind of hard to swallow. People use the excuse of, “when I exercise and I eat sports nutrition containing gluten, I get sick.” While yes, this might be the case, what also might be happening is that you are pushing your body too hard and trying to take in sports nutrition. I see this a lot. People need to take in nutrition during training, at the same intensity they plan to race at. That way they know they can handle it.

2. FODMAP-One believe starting to take hold is that people who think they might have a gluten sensitivity might actual have FODMAP. What is this?  The acronym FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols. These short-chain carbohydrates are incompletely absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and can be easily fermented by gut bacteria. This will lead to GI distress, gas, pain and diarrhea. What foods are considered FODMAP?

  • Lactose from dairy products, fructose from certain fruit, coconut products, and sweeteners, fructans from fibrous vegetables, and polyols from fruit and sugar alcohols

So, let’s look at the Pros:

  • Most people who are on gluten free diets have eliminated processed foods like breads, pasta, cookies, cake, this is good.
  • They instead focus on very healthy carbohydrates like fruits and veggies, this is also good.
  • If they have a GI disorder or sensitivity, this can eliminate it


  • Most people don’t need to go gluten free. So, they are cutting out all grains. Not all grains are bad. 100% whole wheat, barely, oats and many more provide many heart healthy and training benefits.
  • It’s expensive to eat gluten free
  • When you’re not eating things like fortified 100% whole wheat bread, you might be missing out on ingredients like folate and insoluble fiber.

So, my take is, the majority of people do not need to go gluten free. In fact, there are some foods with gluten that are wonderful for you. I’ve mentioned them above, but cutting out whole grains just isn’t necessary. If you think you have a sensitivity, please go talk to your doctor. There could be a myriad of different things occurring and you don’t want to assume it’s gluten. Please don’t just jump on the gluten is bad bandwagon. If you want to eat low carb, just eat low carb. Yes, highly processed white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, etc are not good for you. But even those on occasion are ok. Birthday cake anyone?

And last but not least, The Paleo Diet.

I am one of those athletes that is also a science nerd (if you couldn’t tell). So, whenever something new comes onto the market, I like to read everything there is about it, to find out if I should include it in my, or my athletes training. So, in 2004 or 2005, I found a book called The Paleo Diet for Athletes. I thought to myself, what is this, and should I try it? At that time, there wasn’t a lot of data on it, and to be honest, I didn’t know one single athlete on it. So, I decided to use myself as a guinea pig. And that was hard. I learned very quickly I was not going to be a Paleo convert. There are many reasons, but mainly things like whole grains, dairy, and legumes. These are not allowed, and I think they provided many wonderful benefits (unless you have an allergy of course). Currently while injured I have cut back on my carb intake, so I am making more paleo type foods. Once I can resume 15 hours a week of training, I’ll be eating more grains again.

What is The Paleo Diet? The Paleo Diet was created by Dr. Lorain Cordain. This is a diet, or way of eating that eliminates any food that our paleolithic ancestors did not eat. If you are a paleo convert, there are a number of studies that show you are right in doing what you are doing. There are other studies (many more in fact) that show diets filled with whole grains, dairy and legumes are very healthy for you. These are the things that the paleo diet has eliminated. Ok, what can you eat on the paleo diet?

Allowable foods:

  • Lean meats
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts/Seeds
  • Some oils and fats

What can’t you eat:

  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Any processed foods- but of course, no one should be eating these anyway.

So, if the argument is we should only eat what our ancestors ate, here is a biological anthropologist’s reasons why to not believe the Paleo Diet:

Barbara J. King, a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, reported on NPR in October 2011: “Here’s where science most forcefully speaks back. First, ancient hunter-gatherer groups adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable — for instance, coastal or inland, game-saturated or grain-abundant (eating grains was not necessarily incompatible with hunter-gatherer living). Second, genes were not in control. People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what. In short, there was no single hunter-gatherer foraging strategy, and genes no more “designed” our eating behavior than they designed our language or our ways of relating between the genders.”

There are many other evolutionary biologists that concur with Dr. King above. People could debate for hours about the Paleo Diet. So, I’ll just give my pros and cons.


  • The diet cuts down on processed foods- this includes white bread, refined flours, artificial products, packaged meats, sugary cereals, cookies, cake, etc. These are bad in any diet
  • The diet emphasizes eating lots of vegetables, which is very important
  • They emphasize natural meat, no hormones, no steroids, etc


  • Any diet that eliminates whole food groups is not a diet to stick with. Whole grains, dairy and legumes provide fiber, proteins, photochemicals, vitamins, minerals and many more important nutrients
  • Founded on pseudo science, not fact based science
  • Can be harmful to eat large quantities of protein for prolonged periods
  • It is a very expensive diet to follow
  • It can be a hard diet plan to stick with, and a bit unrealistic for the majority of people

Any diet that emphasizes natural food, with a large emphasis on vegetables is good. Where I think they go wrong is believing that our bodies can not process foods like dairy, grains and legumes. This just isn’t the case. Please do more research if you think what I am writing isn’t true. Or, reach out to your doctor or a local sports dietician.

There will always be people that believe one thing, and others that believe another. I try to make informed decisions based on the current research available. Research is always changing, that’s one thing that makes science so interesting. If you want to try any of the diets or ways of eating that we talked about, please speak with your doctor or a sports dietician. The diet might work for you, or it might not. If you’re curious as I was with the Paleo Diet, give it a try. I might add I think one of the ways the Paleo Diet lost me was when they said I had to make my own things like ketchup. And they advocated for eating organ meats, especially for breakfast. Personally, I just couldn’t and didn’t want to do it. But if you want to try it, go for it. Hopefully you will have a bit more info about each.


  • By Faith - on

    Thanks for information Cristina! I like a lot about paleo but I find it hard to believe that plants are bad for you. I get allergies and food intolerances. If I am healthy and take good care of myself and don’t experience intolerances or allergies I do not think whole grains, legumes (love me some legumes!) are bad for me. Anyway, thanks for the posts keep the info coming I really look forward to it!

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