Does Gluten Free Benefit Athletes?
Athletes are following the trend to go gluten free, but there may be no benefits and actually a downside to that dietary choice. It’s important to understand that people diagnosed with celiac disease must eat gluten free foods to avoid painful symptoms and inflammatory damage to their intestinal tract. If the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged it makes it harder to absorb nutrients from their diet. There is also likely a small subset of the population who may have difficulty with gluten products, often called gluten sensitivity. They will not test positive for celiac disease, but they still have symptoms of bloating, fatigue, and headaches, among other symptoms when they eat foods containing gluten. The rest of us can consume gluten and in fact, benefit from foods made from wheat and other grains that contain similar proteins like durum, spelt, farina, farro, kamut, rye, barley, and triticale. These grains offer nutrients that need to be replaced with other food choices, if you purposefully choose to shun gluten.
There is no benefit to going gluten free if you have no issues with digesting gluten. However, the fitness community seems to have embraced this new dietary option with fervor. Here’s the thing. According to a new large study, going gluten free as an athlete may not provide benefits and may actually lower athletic performance.
The study of about 1000 competitive athletes in Australia found that about 41% of these athletes chose to follow a gluten free diet, for some perceived health benefit. Many of them also said they avoided the gluten grains because they had self-diagnosed an allergy or sensitivity (only 13% had a verified medical diagnosis of celiac disease). One specific reason given for avoiding gluten was that the athletes believed that this choice would reduce a common complaint of digestive “issues” that many athletes develop intermittently.
The researchers noted that almost 90% of the subjects who were runners, cyclists and triathletes, experienced on and off gastrointestinal complaints like bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. It’s important to note that these symptoms can be due to the diversion of blood and fluids from the digestive process to the actively working areas of the body (arms and especially leg muscles). This process and its resulting discomfort have nothing to do with gluten presence. It’s just the natural physiology that can occur in serious athletes.
The researchers decided to investigate whether a gluten free diet enhances health or performance in the athletes, since no prior study had done so. Since masking the types of foods that the athletes would eat during the research was nearly impossible, the researchers created two sports nutrition bars. They were indistinguishable in taste, but one was made with gluten while the other was gluten free. Thirteen male and female cyclists without celiac disease were tested for general fitness and digestive health using blood biomarkers. All subjects were then put on a gluten free diet, including the gluten free bars for one week, and during the second week they followed a similar diet with the sports bars containing substantial amounts of gluten. Normal training schedules were kept during the two weeks.
The cyclists filled out questionnaires during each week and also underwent vigorous exercise testing and blood tests at the end of each one week cycle. The results showed no measurable differences and certainly no benefit to going gluten free. This was a small, short study, so it’s not clear if longer durations would lead to any benefits or for that matter, any downside. It is clear that for someone who does not have gluten issues, going gluten free may not offer benefits. In fact, many individuals who choose to eat gluten free foods, start consuming loads of processed gluten free foods, which can over time, cause weight gain. Many of these foods are also lightweights when it comes to nutrient density.
Since athletes want dietary decisions to provide a payoff, it’s important to research the food choices and the dietary changes you make. Don’t buy into hype!!
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