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Rossi: Penguins' Orpik among select NHLers going without gluten

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Canucks Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Zach Sill (lf) and Brian Gibbons fight for the puck during a scrimage on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 at Consol Enrgy Center.

BOSTON — Brooks Orpik thinks his parents are poisoning themselves.

If so, a majority of his NHL brethren are, too.

Orpik, as health conscious off the ice as he is physical on it, is among a group of NHL players trying to stay away from gluten-based products even though they are not allergic.

“It makes you feel sluggish,” Orpik said. “I ask my parents all the time why they are putting that poison into their bodies.”

Gluten is defined as “the tough, viscid, nitrogenous substances remaining when the flour of wheat or other grain is washed to remove the starch.”

That sounds as bad as Orpik makes it out to be, but most people cannot get enough gluten. It is found in pizza crust, cookies and sandwiches. Even foods perceived as healthier — like dark wheat breads — contain gluten.

The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that one in 133 Americans has Celiac disease, which is an inability to digest gluten. That number is at 1 in 100 worldwide, the Mayo Clinic reports, and it includes Max Domi, the 12th overall pick by Phoenix at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. (Domi also is diabetic.)

Tom Kostopoulos, captain for the Penguins' AHL affiliate, played in 630 NHL games despite dealing with Celiac disease. Islanders goalie Anders Nilsson discovered last season, after months of testing, that his chronic fatigue was a result of previously undetected gluten and dairy allergies.

Allergies present a lot of challenges for professional athletes. Sidney Crosby cannot take most antibiotics, so infections often stick with him longer than for Penguins teammates.

However, in recent years, even people without a gluten allergy have started to stray — especially professional athletes.

James Neal said he has considered going gluten free, though he is not allergic. Fellow Penguins winger Craig Adams tried it during summer 2011.

“I saw no benefit,” Adams said, noting he returned gluten to his diet after two months.

Deryk Engelland, like Orpik a Penguins defenseman, limits gluten in his diet during the season. He eats pasta before games to “fill up a little more,” but in the offseason, Engelland goes without gluten. (His wife is afflicted with Celiac disease.)

“It helps me trim down in the summer,” Engelland said of avoiding gluten. “I feel better at the end.”

Orpik eschews gluten for a similar feeling. He avoids pasta and sprout-based breads and shops for gluten-free products at East End Food Co-Op and Whole Foods Market.

“For me, it's an inflammatory food,” Orpik said of gluten products. “Why would you want that?”

Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar does not want that for his players. Kadar, who also oversees team nutrition, advises players to avoid gluten. If they are unwilling, he suggests they ingest it before 4 p.m. for improved absorption.

Avoiding gluten is a choice taken by other NHL players, including Karl Alzner and Jay Beagle of the Washington Capitals.

Orpik said awareness of how a gluten-free diet can benefit a player is growing, as are the options for athletes — and the general public — that choose the different diet.

Engelland said a big drawback is the expense of gluten-free foods, but Orpik said those costs have come down in the past three to four years.

Orpik is a true believer, and there are not many. Still, he believes gluten-free will catch on, which would leave what he considers “free candy” — big hits — as a more potent poison for the human bodies that comprise the NHL.

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