The first year of college is always a brand new experience. Formany it is the first time living away from home for an extendedperiod of time, eating food not made by the parents and having todeal with a roommate’s differing sleep schedule. there are manyhighlights and added stresses with such newfound freedom.
Four years ago, Alexa Ahler began her college career like everyother student-athlete. A member of the UW-Stout cross country andtrack teams, she attended classes on top of her running and liftingschedule. everything seemed fine until she began to experiencestomachaches late in the first semester.
“These were distinctive,” Ahler said. “I felt bloated for severalhours and I couldn’t eat.” during her training runs Ahler wouldfatigue easily and did not know why.
The pains increased during the indoor track season and crosscountry head coach and assistant track distance coach Matt Schaufand head track and field coach Laura Knudsen started to becomeconcerned.
“Alexa hadn’t been feeling well,” Schauf said. “We thought maybe itwas her iron level or maybe a food allergy, so we had her checkedout.”
Going home for spring break, the pain became intense enough to keepher in bed. The doctor had Ahler tested for celiac disease. A Stoutteammate at the time also had the disease.
When the test results came back, she was diagnosed with celiadisease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that eliminates many commonsources of carbohydrates, Ahler, a dietetics major,explained.
The disease is genetic. However, no one in her family has ever beentested for it.
“How does it just pop out of nowhere?” Ahler questioned. Doctorshave associated intense emotional stress, a change in diet and anew environment to potential causes, she said.
“At first, it freaked me out, but being a dietetics major helpedout,” Ahler said. “I started doing research about it and found outeverything I could.”
Something most people do not completely understand is that celiacdisease is a gluten intolerance and not an allergy. Celiac diseaseis difficult to diagnose because it gets masked by otherproblems.
“I won’t break into hives or puff up when I come in contact withgluten as if I were allergic to it,” Ahler explained. “My bodyphysically cannot process gluten.”
When Ahler eats foods containing gluten, her immune system respondsby damaging her small intestine, which then interferes withabsorption of nutrients due to her damaged small intestine.
Changing her diet and trying to figure out what she could and couldnot eat was a struggle her first year after the diagnosis. Runnersdepend on a carbohydrate-loaded diet to have enough energy tofinish their races. she found herself struggling to keep up withthe necessary calorie intake to keep her energized.
Schauf said the coaching staff kept an eye on Ahler, but didn’trealize at first what had to be done.
“My racing career plummeted until I figured out what I could haveand what I couldn’t have,” Ahler said.
“At first, Alexa was replacing the foods with salads and vegetablesand fruits,” Schauf said. “She was taking away about 85 percent ofher diet. we started asking ‘Where are you getting your caloriesfrom?’”
Together, Schauf and Knudsen, a registered dietitian, started tolook at Ahler’s dietary intake. The diet, the needed extra caloriesof a long distance runner and the end of the first year at schoolall came to a head during the outdoor WIAC championships. Ahlercompeted in the 10K, and the race did not go well for her.
“We asked her what she had to eat,” Schauf said, and that is whenAhler really started to attack the issues.
Jane Foos, the sports dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System – RedCedar, was brought on board to work together with Ahler.
“I helped her translate what she needs to do to compete as anathlete,” Foos said. “We took her beyond eating for health. Wetalked about these are the things you need to do to compete, beforeand after a race. what does she have to do to recover and repairfrom a race?”
Ahler took the advice from Foos, Schauf, Knudsen and dietitiansfrom her hometown Waukesha area and ran with it.
“Alexa solved a lot of her own dietary issues,” Foos said. “She isdoing a good job managing it.”
Reading the labels and substituting foods is necessary. The biggestchallenge she has is when the team travels and goes out toeat.
“We usually go to pasta places, which isn’t too bad. But there isno law that the restaurant has to post what is exactly in theirsauces,” Ahler said.
In that case she orders a plain chicken breast and calls it goodrather than experimenting and having to deal with it later.
Schauf said that he and the coaching staff will make advanceinquiries when planning a team trip.
“I find out what the hotels and restaurants have for gluten-freediets,” Schauf said. “We put the trips together, but Alexa will dothe work for herself. it has been a lot on her. When we went toSeattle (in September), she brought a whole suitcase of foodalong.”
Some people think that going on a gluten-free diet is beneficial,but Ahler completely disagrees.
“I would never choose to be gluten free,” Ahler said. “It’s notreally an advantage. it is a disease state and not just for atrend.”
Ahler said that the best source of carbohydrates is in wheatproducts, but when on a gluten-free diet the carbohydrates have tobe supplemented and substitutions have to be made.
Being a dietetics’ major with celiac disease has made it easier forher to empathize with patients that come in with the disease.
“At the place I shadowed (in the Waukesha area), there were peoplethat would come in with celiac disease and I just wanted to sitdown and get to know them,” Ahler said.
Ahler still keeps a running dialog with Foos, who worksside-by-side with the UW-Stout athletic program on nutritionissues.
“When I find articles with athletes and gluten-free diets, I willemail her,” Foos said.
After graduation next May, Ahler plans to get into a graduateprogram or find an internship with a primary focus on clinicalwork. Eventually she would like to open a gluten-free bakery shopor store.