Olympic speedskater Chris Creveling has at least one thing in common with pop star Miley Cyrus and it’s not an affinity for belly-baring outfits. Both the athlete and the Wrecking Ball singer went gluten-free in 2012.
"I’d go to races and eat very healthy and, most of the time, gluten-free without even knowing it," said 27-year-old Creveling, who grew up in Kintersville, Pa. and graduated from Palisades High School.
When the U.S. Olympic Education Center ended its program at Northern Michigan University in 2012, the Lehigh Valley native moved to Salt Lake City to continue working towards his goal of making the Olympic team.
As Creveling upped his dedication to speedskating with the relocation - his third move in five years for the sport, he also reevaluated his diet.
"I felt like there was a lot of inflammation in my body," said Creveling, who decided with his nutritionist to stop consuming food with gluten.
After making the switch, the Olympian says he noticed his performance improved. “When I first started, it was three months before the World Team trials,” he said. “I won both time trials and shocked everyone with making the World Team.”
Usually there are two reasons someone would eat a gluten-free diet – celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, said Emily Rubin, a registered dietician with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Celiac Center.
She compares celiac disease to a severe food allergy. “Someone who ate a peanut and their throat could close, this is doing the same sort of thing, but you may not know it,” said Rubin, who added that aside from suffering from gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue, the small intestine is under attack in celiac sufferers.
Intolerances, on the other hand, are less severe. “It is not attacking your system like celiac would be,” she said. “It just makes you feel more sluggish."
Tests can be done to detect the disease, but an intolerance is determined based on evaluations of diet and symptoms, she said.
Creveling, who did not get tested for the disease, doesn’t suspect celiac, but says the habit works for him and his sport.
“I noticed a huge difference physically, energy-wise,” he said. “And my body seems to really take to it."
While it may not be the right diet for everyone, let alone every Olympian, Rubin says Creveling is making smart choices with the self-imposed restriction.
“For athletes you need carbs that are going to extend you, stay with you longer,” she said. “And that’s where the fiber component comes in.”
Creveling incorporates quinoa, kale and spinach into his meals, which also feature steak, chicken or tuna.
Quinoa, rice, potatoes and risotto are naturally gluten-free carbs and good sources of fiber, Rubin said.
“They aren’t going to be as heavy,” she said. “And they are easier to digest.”
But Rubin suspects the lifestyle choice could be challenging for an elite athlete. “If you are on the road a lot,” she said, “It is harder to get the healthy options.”
When Creveling competed in the World Cup last November, he had trouble finding the right foods despite the competition’s location in Italy, a culinary destination.
“A bunch of the skaters would come back with pizza,” he said. “An easy decision for them.”
He says the next day he luckily found a place to accommodate his dietary restrictions.
He often looks for Asian stores and restaurants, where he can get rice, and names Pho as one of his favorite pre-race meals.
Monitoring and altering food consumption is one of many sacrifices high-caliber athletes make. But just like Miley splurges on burrito burgers, Creveling has his own temptations.
“Nothing really compares to the actual experience of a Philly cheesesteak,” Creveling said. “The Philly cheesesteak is just irresistible.”