The gluten free diet has taken the world by storm. While only 1% of the population has Celiac Disease an estimated 6% avoid gluten for non Celiac gluten sensitivity. But that’s where the medical reasons end and the desire kicks in. Fad or feel better? Does it matter which? Data shows another 28% of Americans are giving up gluten for ‘health or lifestyle reasons’ but have no medical history suggesting it would be beneficial. It is claimed that going gluten free can help one loose weight, have more energy and be an overall healthier person.
Many professional athletes and even entire teams have sworn off gluten to reap increased performance. One study declared 40% of athletes (even at world/Olympic level) claimed to be gluten free 50-100% of the time.
Lets explore the basics of being gluten free and how it relates to you as an athlete.
What is Gluten?
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you might not know what gluten is. Gluten is a protein in wheat and wheat derivatives. It is responsible for the springy texture in bread products. It is also a protein that can trigger ill reactions in the human body.
Giving Up Gluten:
Taking gluten out of the diet is a big commitment. Removing gluten completely can be a tedious task as many foods have traces of the substance in them. Any processed food could potentially have gluten in it: sauces, dressings, soups, candy, and even spice mixes and many grains that do not naturally have gluten can be contaminated in the processing facility. Finding the gluten in foods can be tricky as the substance goes by many different names and may or may not be listed on ingredients labels at all. However, removing most of the gluten from your diet is not a difficult task; just think pasta, breads, pizza, cereals, bagels, fried foods, breaded foods, soy sauce, and baked goods. If you do not need to be 100%, you do not need to worry about a crumb here or there.
Is it Healthier?
Many healthy, whole grains also contain gluten: faro, spelt, barley to name a few… Cutting out all gluten containing foods can greatly restrict variety. Replacing gluten foods with non gluten foods is where things can make or break one’s health status. Anytime you cut out large groups of foods, you are likely putting yourself at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Since most major gluten foods are carbohydrates, it is important to make sure you are not inadvertently consuming too few carbohydrates. Remember the more hours you spend training, the higher your carbohydrate needs are. Typically, athletes need 50-70% of their intake from carbohydrates. If you are going gluten free, it might be difficult to get that amount of carbohydrate without careful planning.
Most wheat flour products are also fortified with vitamins and minerals while their gluten free replacements lack the same fortification. Missing out on fortification could mean your new diet is lacking B vitamins, folate, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc. Your GF diet needs to be well balanced in variety of gluten free grains and plant foods to make up for this lack of fortification.
There is also a ‘health halo’ concerning gluten free foods. This refers to foods seeming healthier solely based on their gluten free label. Simply seeing ‘Gluten Free’ on a package should not be your enticement to choosing that food. It is still important to read the ingredients, nutrition label and consider how the food item fits in your overall diet. A gluten free cookie is still a cookie and there are healthier and terrible versions of both. Most processed items, gluten free or not are difficult to fit into a healthy diet. When cutting out gluten, replace the calories with natural items for best health results.
Another downfall of eating gluten free is that it does take more planning. Athletes with high training loads are typically already tight on time and adding dietary constraints could increase stress levels. Athletes that aren’t foodies or are naturally prone to under consuming foods may find it difficult to find options and end up skipping meals and snacks more frequently. Many races do not offer GF options outside a table of bananas. Gluten Free athletes need to plan on their own fuel before, during, and after to get the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition.
Performance Enhancing Diet?
For me, yes. Because I have a disease and my body fails me if poisoned with gluten. Getting rid of gluten means my blood can carry more oxygen and my gut can digest foods properly. For those without Celiac, there is some good rationality to suggest it might help.
Pro athletes have been experimenting with gluten free diets for years now. Many have claimed that dietary move led to success. Scientific studies that have looked at this issue (there are only a few) have not found benefits. However, they have only looked at short term diet changes and dietary studies are extremely tricky to properly evaluate.
Gluten free versions of food typically have less fiber and protein than wheat versions. For before and during training workouts, this could be helpful. Consuming too much protein or fiber before hand can put more stress on the GI system, increasing GI distress and increasing the need for restroom breaks. It can also slow the rate at which your body receives the carbohydrates, leaving you with less fuel in your tank. For this reason, gluten free foods might be better, but not because of the gluten…
If your diet is loaded with junk carbohydrates and you struggle with weight and energy, cutting gluten might be beneficial. It is no secret that getting closer to your race weight will increase performance. While going GF is not the magic answer to weight loss, having to reevaluate your eating ways and make conscious dietary choices could help you tighten things up. Committing to not eating gluten will limit your choices. Instead of ordering a pizza, you might order the salad. Instead of a donut, you might have to choose a banana. These are options that could improve your diet quality and work towards weight loss. Giving up gluten filled processed foods for more natural options (sweet potato over sweet cinnamon roll) is likely to increase your energy and decrease your weight. Again, the key to this argument is to avoid processed foods and make better quality dietary choices… not the gluten.
There are also theories that gluten creates inflammation in the body. Inflammation can present itself in numerous ways and is difficult to pin down. You may have unexplained fatigue, joint pain, slow healing, slow recovery and a list of other symptoms. Again, try it. Eliminate gluten in your diet and see if your energy levels or other issues improve. If so, then your performance will be better off without it. This argument is about the gluten itself.
Look at the two products above. The image on the right is a gluten free version of Bisquick breakfast mix. You can see the GF version has less fat and less protein but higher carbohydrate. This might be good for pre training but not as good for a non-training food choice.
If you do not have a medical condition, but want to see the effects of going gluten free for yourself, follow these tips.
First, give yourself at least 2 weeks of being gluten free. Two weeks will allow you to settle in, but serious benefits might take much longer to present themselves.
Second, focus on reducing gluten instead of 100% removal. This could improve compliance to the new eating style. There is also no evidence to suggest that going 100% GF will improve outcomes for non Celiac patients.
Use this as an opportunity to reevaluate dietary habits. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store to choose from plain, unprocessed produce, meat, seafood, and dairy. Choose a handful of GF supplemental (packaged) foods. Do not try to replicate the variety of your current eating style with GF versions. Focus on adding new, gluten free grains to your diet to ensure proper carbohydrate intake. Amaranth, quinoa, GF oats, buckwheat, rice and millet are all excellent GF options. Also try lentils, beans, potatoes, corn and sweet potatoes.
Take note. Start a journal of these new diet habits and how they make you feel. Documenting from the start of the change will help you focus on what is really going on with your body. What were your symptoms (if any) before? What were your goals of going GF? How is the diet helping or hurting you in life and athletic training?
Gluten Free Eating Options:
These options show how to avoid major gluten sources. To avoid gluten 100%, make sure to check labels of all products/ingredients.
Pre Training GF Options:
Gluten Free Option:
During Training Options:
Honey Stinger Waffle
Gluten Free Option:
Honey Stinger Gel
Post Training GF Options:
Chicken Noodle Soup
Gluten Free Option:
Chicken and Rice Soup
Diet is extremely important to athletic performance. At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that going gluten free will lead to enhanced athletic performance. However, going gluten free has the potential to reduce bloating, fatigue and other ailments. Luckily, it is pretty simple and harmless to go on a GF trial diet to see if it is right for you.
If removing or reducing gluten in your diet makes you feel better, then you might have gluten sensitivity and will be better off reducing or removing it from your diet. The key is to make sure you use nutritious replacement foods to keep your diet quality high and nutritious.
If you have no perceived health ailments or have experienced no benefit from cutting gluten, following the diet is unlikely to provide you with any athletic benefits. Also, if following the diet increases other distress (higher food costs, more meal planning required) then it might be best not to concern yourself with it.
My professional and personal opinion is that a gluten free diet can definitely help you lessen inflammation, cut out poor quality foods, and race faster… IF you do it correctly. What does that mean? Well we’ve just discussed all that, but short story: Whether you’re on or off gluten, choose foods that are high quality, natural and nutritious.
If you would like to try a GF diet, work with a knowledgeable dietitian (aka: ME) to ensure you are getting the right mix of nutrients to fuel your performance needs.