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Road Training

Cycling Nutrition with Monique Ryan: Anti-inflammatory and low-gluten diets

A look at the diet used by some Garmin team pros

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Editor’s Note: Earlier this week published an article on Christian Vande Velde’s low-gluten diet and some of the low-gluten recipes his wife uses. Today, sports nutritionist Monique Ryan takes a look at the science behind a anti-inflammatory diet and low-gluten diets.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a hot word these days and is often blamed for a number of aches, pains, and illnesses experienced by athletes. In a more general sense, inflammation is your body’s reaction to infection, irritation or injury and is considered a nonspecific immune response. You may understand inflammation as the painful component of arthritis or as the inflammation of the airways, which characterizes asthma.

If you have ever experienced some type of injury or infection, you may have seen some classic signs of inflammation such as redness, swelling, and warmth at the injured area. While uncomfortable, these responses are designed to lead to repair and healing. Cyclists are also likely familiar with other exercise-related symptoms of inflammation, such as muscle soreness and joint pain experienced after hard training rides. In addition to repairing muscle fibers, inflammation can also promote training adaptations. Physiologists are often looking for strategies that decrease markers of inflammation after hard exercise, in hopes that this will improve recovery and risk of developing illness related to training.

While some aspects of acute inflammation serve a purpose, chronic inflammation can also be destructive, and elevated makers of inflammation have been associated with a higher prevalence of autoimmune disease, heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

While stress, training, genetics, and various lifestyle factors can all promote inflammation, proponents of an anti-inflammatory diet believe that nutrition is a major factor in influencing inflammation. Scientific evidence for the disease reduction benefits of the anti-inflammatory diet is still being gathered, but it may provide some alternative to common medical anti-inflammatory medications, which can have unwanted side effects. Dietary strategies to control inflammation is simply a way of selecting foods in hopes of decreasing inflammation, but should also provide the proper balance of nutrients for training and recovery, and ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and dietary fiber.

Fat comes first

Perhaps the most significant nutritional factor in maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet is choosing the right types of fats, with a ratio of saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fat of 1:2:1 being ideal. Having the proper balance of fat in your diet helps to decrease production of inflammatory hormone-like compounds and increase production of anti-inflammatory compounds.

Saturated fat and trans fat should be kept to low or minimal levels. Of course you may already keep your intake of saturated fat down for heart health by avoiding or limiting butter, cream, cheese, and other full-fat dairy product, as well as unskinned chicken, fatty meats, and products made with coconut and palm kernel oils. The best oils to use include the monounsaturated extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil. Read labels and limit hydrogenated oils from margarines and commercial baked goods that contribute trans fat to our diets.

Other sources of healthy fats to include in your diet are ground flaxseeds, avocados and nuts, especially walnuts, cashews, almonds, and nut butters made from these nuts. One of the best fats for decreasing inflammation are the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, and more specifically the type found in fatty fish, EPA and DHA. Best sources include fresh, wild frozen or canned sockeye salmon, sardines, and herring. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids can also provide the often recommended amounts of 1 to 2 g daily. In addition to a moderate fish intake, adding more food sources of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty, will also push your essential fatty acid intake in a direction that decreases inflammation. Good sources include flax oil, soybean, walnut, and canola oil, and soy products such as tofu and soy milk.

Fish not only provides the most healthful omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, but is also a good source of protein. For other protein food sources that could decrease inflammation, a move towards more plant sources is recommended, including dried peas and beans and lentils. Lean, skinless poultry and grass fed beef are also good choices.

A good intake of fiber can also help to decrease inflammation. Increase your fiber intake with fresh fruits and vegetables, especially from berries and dried beans, and from whole grains as well. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are also rich in phytonutrients which protect against disease. Look for lots of color from berries, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, and dark leafy greens.

Of course carbohydrate intake is important when training and racing, and so is making good choices in regards to inflammation. Try to keep the sugar to a minimum in your daily diet, though you may use products that contain sugars during training as these are the forms of carbohydrate tolerated during exercise. Other changes in your carbohydrate choices can also be helpful. Rather than what are believed to be pro-inflammatory or higher glycemic white bread and potatoes, crackers, and chips and other snack foods, eat more whole grains, beans, oats, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes.

Most proponent of this diet emphasizes the need to have lower glycemic grain choices, rather than avoiding wheat or gluten exclusively. While some sources of gluten can also have a high glycemic index, others may not. For example whole grain pasta cooked al dente can have a lower glycemic index than squishy white pasta. Certainly it is fine to consume a variety of whole grains such as from brown rice rather than white rice, or buckwheat (kasha), or uncontamined whole oats, or wild rice.

Gluten vs. gluten-free

Whether or not to exclude gluten from your diet can be a whole separate issue, and may or may not be appropriate for certain individuals. Gluten, a substance found in wheat, barley and rye, can trigger an inflammatory response in the mucosa on the small intestine in individuals with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, or in individuals with a condition now referred to “gluten sensitivity.” Gluten sensitivity is considered by experts to be a non-allergic, non-autoimmune response to gluten that produces similar symptoms to celiac disease. Some individuals may simply have an allergy to wheat. True gluten intolerance can lead to a variety of related health and nutrition problems and the symptoms can vary greatly among individuals, though a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms are common.

New research and improved diagnostic screening have revealed that the incidence of celiac disease is far greater than previously believed, ranging from as many as 1 in 111 to 1 in 133 Americans, with many not being diagnosed. For those with relatives that have celiac disease, the incidence may be even higher at 1 in 40 persons. While discussing all the details of gluten intolerance is beyond the scope of this article, the treatment for gluten intolerance involves enormous dietary changes, not only avoid wheat, rye, and barley, but also many processed products that may contain gluten, or be contaminated with gluten, such as oats processed in a factory where other gluten products are made. But, if complete elimination of gluten from the diet is appropriate for an individual as determined by various diagnostic tools and an elimination diet, and ultimately improves symptoms and benefits their long-term health, then it is well worth the effort.

Spice it up

One additional inflammatory tip would be to spice up your diet, mainly with the anti-inflammatory spices ginger and turmeric. Green tea is a good liquid choice, and keep your alcohol intake moderate, as this beverage increases inflammation. But don’t feel too deprived, because a bit of plain dark chocolate is also considered a good anti-inflammatory choice!

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over twenty-four years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America (

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