Gluten Free Athletes

Written by: Lea Crosetti

The gluten-free diet seems to have become the next best thing. More and more people are turning to gluten-free foods despite not having gluten allergies or celiac disease. Food manufacturers appear to be abandoning the “Low Carb” marketing and turning to “Gluten-Free” to feed this frenzy. But why? What are the advantages of going gluten-free?

First let me explain what gluten is. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye, and barley grains. A gluten free diet is recommended for people who are allergic to this protein or for those who have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a malabsorptive disease where this protein damages the intestinal lining. It is estimated that about 1 out 133 people have some type of gluten intolerance and should avoid gluten containing foods. However, those who do not have gluten intolerance’s or allergies can digest gluten without a problem.

Some athletes who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, like Desiree Ficker, and changed to a gluten free diet have seen improvements in their performance. Some athletes without diagnosed intolerance’s have followed in hopes to eliminate their GI distress and improve their performance. Claims that a gluten free diet can improve performance are based on the idea that with improved digestion, the absorption of nutrients will improve which could then lead to improved performance. Again, this can only be true if there is a gluten intolerance to begin with and that it is causing malabsorption.

What may actually be happening is that people are following a more nutritious, metabolically efficient diet. By eliminating processed breads, pastas, and cereals, athletes can focus more on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean protein and healthy fats. Having these nutritious foods be the base of an athlete’s diet, can assure that they are not only getting adequate vitamins and minerals, but they are also promoting appropriate hormone signals.

Large amounts of carbohydrates (whether gluten containing or not) can spike blood sugars which then spike insulin. Insulin promotes carbohydrate metabolism and inhibits fat oxidation. Limiting fat oxidation is a problem because we can easily deplete are carbohydrate stores and have to rely more on supplements during training and races which can lead to more GI distress. Improved fat metabolism and improved athletic performance has been seen in endurance athletes when they follow a more balanced diet that isn’t as carbohydrate heavy. A low carbohydrate diet is not recommended by any means, but by eating more fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy, it promotes a shift in macronutrients and provides an overall well balanced, nutrient rich diet.

So gluten may not necessarily be the culprit but a typical unbalanced carbohydrate heavy athlete’s diet may be more of the issue at hand. Unless you have a gluten intolerance it is not recommended to start buying gluten free foods. To become more metabolically efficient, improve GI distress, enhance your performance it is recommended to follow a balanced diet made up of mostly fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy, lean meats and healthy fats. If you need help getting started, give us a holler! Happy training.

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  1. For myself, going gluten free made the difference in my recovery for sure… I was “almost gluten free” eating a really balanced diet for two years before going all the way with it and it worked… It is possible just eliminating a little more “junk food” may have helped, but I think it is also directly related to the wheat.. Just my 2 cents.