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Martina Navratilova: Why I Switched to a Gluten-Free Diet

Three years ago, my digestive system tried to tell me something. I'm glad I listened,

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En español l As I went through menopause, I noticed that I felt bloaty and gassy a lot of the time. My energy was low, and I was usually very uncomfortable. These symptoms seemed to worsen whenever I ate pasta. At first, I thought the offender was the marinara sauce. So I switched to clam sauce. My digestive system still growled. I had no clue what was wrong with me, so I wrote it off to getting older.

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Gluten-free symbol on grocery store shelf, Martina Navratilova goes gluten-free (Kyle Bursaw/DeKalb Daily Chronicle/AP Photo)

Some stores clearly label their products for shoppers interested in a gluten-free diet. — Kyle Bursaw/DeKalb Daily Chronicle/AP Photo

My doctor of 20 years did some tests and it turned out — ta-da! — I am gluten-intolerant. But I was unfamiliar with the condition, so never made the connection.

Now that I'm more educated on this topic, I've learned that gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and if you're sensitive to it, as I am, it triggers an immune reaction that can damage your small intestines and prevent absorption of some nutrients. Hence the tummy pain and the fatigue.

(There is a more serious gluten sensitivity condition called celiac disease, an autoimmune intestinal disorder that causes severe allergies to gluten. About one in 130 people has celiac disease; many more people are gluten-intolerant.)

After the diagnosis, I eliminated gluten from my diet. Within two days, I dropped a whole size from my waist, the bloat disappeared and, best of all, I began to feel energized again.

Going gluten-free is challenging but manageable. I'll be honest: I miss bread, especially dark, chewy whole-grain bread, like the kind I grew up with. Giving up pasta wasn't as difficult, although I do cook with gluten-free pasta when I need my Italian fix. And if you don't want to prepare it yourself, a lot of restaurants now offer gluten-free pasta, even pizza. Regardless, I just feel so much better. My body was telling me that I needed to change a huge chunk of my diet, and I always listen to my body. The benefit is that I feel healthier than ever.

If you're considering going gluten-free, here's some advice:

  • Don't concentrate on what you can't have. Concentrate on what you can have. Although I was initially challenged by a gluten-free diet, I've been able to find many alternatives to my favorite foods, from gluten-free beer to gluten-free oatmeal and bread.

  • Get familiar with grains you can eat, such as brown rice and quinoa.

  • Try new foods that are gluten-free. Gluten-free foods have gone mainstream, and they're easier to find than ever. Most major grocery stores now carry them.

  • Read labels carefully, and look closely at the ingredients list. You'll be surprised at how many foods contain wheat and wheat by-products. Salad dressings, soups and sauces are usually thickened with wheat, for example. Packaged processed foods — anything that comes in a box — are loaded with preservatives and derivatives that often contain gluten.

  • Be assertive (politely!) in restaurants. Ask the server if certain foods contain wheat or gluten. Fortunately, many restaurants now serve gluten-free foods.

  • Consider taking digestive enzymes. These nutritional supplements further assist your body in fully digesting your food. I take a raw enzyme product, and it has helped me tremendously.

  • Pay attention to how you feel once you've dropped gluten from your diet. I predict you'll feel much better and more energetic.

As for me, my symptoms have disappeared, and I'm happy with my stomach's decision to be gluten-free. All my life I've gone against the grain, and now I'm doing it with my diet.

Martina Navratilova is AARP's fitness expert.

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VIDEO EXTRA

GO ORGANIC! Martina Navratilova shares four tips for buying organic produce for healthy eating.

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