Going gluten-free is trendy right now among the general population AND among athletes. Some athletes go gluten-free in hopes of improving their performance. For example, tennis champ Djokovic eliminated gluten from his diet five years ago and attributes his subsequent Grand Slam victories to purging gluten. Even some bodybuilders are hopping on the gluten-free diet bandwagon and removing all traces of gluten from their diet – but does such an approach really offer benefits?
First, let’s be clear what gluten is. Gluten consists of two distinct proteins, called glutenin and gliadin. Both are found in the endosperm of wheat and in a different form in other cereal grains, like rye and barley. It’s gluten that gives dough its elasticity and chewiness.
A small percentage of the population, about 1%, has a condition called celiac disease where eating gluten causes an autoimmune reaction that damages the lining of the small intestine. In essence, gluten triggers an abnormal immune response that causes ongoing, and serious, intestinal damage.
For people with true celiac disease avoiding gluten is essential for health. Even tiny amounts of gluten proteins can elicit an immune response and unpleasant intestinal symptoms. In fact, people with celiac disease can also experience other symptoms unrelated to the digestive tract including fatigue, brain fog, anemia, headaches, and joint pain. When the small intestines are damaged by inflammation due to celiac disease, they can’t absorb nutrients as well, so nutritional deficiencies become a problem.
The Rise of Gluten Intolerance
These days, many health experts acknowledge that even people who don’t have celiac disease can experience unpleasant digestive symptoms when they consume gluten. In this case, the reaction is not a classical immune attack as with celiac disease but a “sensitivity” to foods that contain gluten. Estimates are that about 10% of the population has some degree of gluten sensitivity, what we refer to as gluten intolerance.
Although there is a blood test doctors can do to look for celiac disease, no blood test exists for gluten intolerance. Instead, if you’re concerned that you’re gluten sensitive, you could eliminate all traces of gluten from your diet for a few weeks and see how you feel.
What Happens When Athletes Go On a Gluten-Free Diet?
So, what impact, if any, does going gluten-free have on athletic performance? In a recent study, researchers looked at this issue. In this small study, the subjects were a group of healthy, male and female cyclists. Researchers placed all of the cyclists on a gluten-free diet for two one-week sessions.
During the first session, the cyclists ate a completely gluten-free diet, but during the second session, they ate one of two sports bars on a daily basis, one containing gluten and the other gluten-free, along with their standard gluten-free diet. Neither group knew which bar they were munching. The researchers were also blinded as to which cyclists got which bar.
After each session, the researchers used time trials to test their athletic performance and did blood tests to measures markers of intestinal inflammation. The results? There were no differences in exercise performance regardless of whether the athletes consumed gluten or not, nor were their differences in inflammatory markers.
Can Going On a Gluten-Free Diet Eliminate Digestive Problems in Athletes?
One of the reasons athletes go on a gluten-free diet is in hopes of minimizing digestive symptoms during training. Digestive problems are common among athletes of all types, including acid reflux, nausea, and diarrhea. You may have experienced some of these symptoms yourself during or after a weight training or high-intensity interval training session. Yet, in this study, the athlete’s digestive symptoms didn’t vary whether they ate gluten or not.
Although this study was small, it calls into questions whether a gluten-free diet has any impact on athletic performance in healthy people. Still, this may not apply if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It’s hard to imagine athletic performance NOT improving if you have celiac disease and switch to a gluten-free diet. Even if you’re only gluten sensitive but don’t have celiac disease, you can still experience intestinal symptoms that make it harder to work out.
Despite the lack of evidence that abstaining from gluten affects athletic performance in people who are free of celiac and aren’t sensitive to gluten, some anti-gluten nutritionists argue that our bodies haven’t adapted to eating a gluten-containing diet. It wasn’t until 10,000 years ago that gluten entered the picture with the domestication of crops and the entry of grains into the human diet. As a result, we can’t digest it easily. Others believe we HAVE had enough time to adapt to gluten. So, there’s not a consensus about this issue even among dieticians.
The Healthiest Diet for an Athlete is a Balanced One
Diet fads come and go and it remains to be seen whether gluten-free will go the way of other diet trends that were quickly abandoned when something new came along. As an athlete, eating a balanced diet with a sufficient quantity of carbs is important, especially if you do high-intensity workouts. What WILL negatively impact performance during high-intensity exercise is being glycogen-depleted because you didn’t eat sufficient carbs to fuel your workout.
You can get carbohydrates without consuming gluten by eating foods like fruits, vegetables, quinoa, gluten-free oats, sweet potatoes amaranth, beans, lentils, and nuts, but it’s more challenging when you completely eliminate gluten from your diet – and you may not need to. The best way to find out whether you are sensitive to gluten is to go on a gluten-free diet for 2 or 3 weeks and monitor your symptoms and your workout performance. The results of a study don’t necessarily apply to every individual since we’re each different genetically.
Also, if you experience digestive symptoms, get them checked out by a health professional too. It’s possible that you DO have celiac disease. If so, you will need to COMPLETELY eliminate gluten from your diet for health reasons. If that’s the case, you’ll have to read labels carefully to make sure every product you use is free of gluten and even the possibility of cross-contamination as well. Don’t try to self-diagnose. It’s not a good idea to try to handle symptoms that could be related to celiac at home. It’s a condition that needs to be closely monitored.
Celiac Support Association. “What is Celiac Disease?”
Time Magazine. “Many athletes tout the gluten-free way. What’s the science behind the claim?”
The New York Times. “When Athletes Go Gluten-Free”
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