Take a stroll through the grocery store and you'll notice an increasing amount of shelf space devoted to gluten-free foods, including cookies, crackers, and cereals. Eat at restaurants such as Chili's, P.F. Chang's, or Boston Market, and you can order gluten-free chicken-noodle stir-fry and chocolate cake for dessert. Add to this all the books and Web sites professing the benefits of gluten-free eating, and suddenly carbloving runners can't help but wonder if a diet without gluten is worth biting into.
Going gluten-free is, without a doubt, essential for runners with celiac disease (CD) and gluten intolerance (GI), says Julie McGinnis, R.D., a dietitian who has GI and runs theglutenfreebistro.com. Both disorders can cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and in the case of CD, nutrient malabsorption; eliminating gluten prevents symptoms. But what about the rest of us? Can runners without CD or GI expect any health or performance benefits from giving up gluten—a protein in wheat, spelt, kamut, barley, and rye? It's a question athletes are asking. The Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team even eats gluten-free when racing, claiming it helps performance by easing inflammation and digestion.
But most runners shouldn't give up their bagels and pasta. Lara Field, R.D., a marathoner and dietitian who works with celiac patients at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago, says for healthy runners there is no evidence whatsoever that gluten-free eating offers any performance benefits over a balanced diet that contains gluten. "The theory that removing wheat from your diet is going to ease inflammation and digestion and speed exercise recovery just doesn't hold up for most," says Field.
Of course, you're doing yourself a favor if you replace heavily processed gluten-containing foods with more nutritious whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, says McGinnis. She points out that some of the most nutrient-dense whole grains (including buckwheat, amaranth, brown rice, teff, and quinoa) are naturally gluten-free and loaded with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
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Proceed with Caution
Field warns that a poorly planned switch to gluten-free can backfire, leading to an inadequate intake of complex carbs, vitamins, and minerals found in runner staples. And while there are lots of healthy gluten-free packaged foods, "not all are nutritional bell ringers," Field says. "Some people associate 'gluten-free' with 'healthier,' but a runner who isn't careful could end up eating a lot of refined carbs and added fats, leading to weight gain."
Nor is it easy (or inexpensive) to go gluten-free. The wheat protein is in a dizzying array of products, including soups, deli meats, salad dressings, cheese spreads, roasted nuts, energy bars, veggie burgers, condiments, sauces, and ice cream in the form of malt flavoring, soy sauce, and other seasonings. "It takes a keen eye to spot gluten on food labels," says Field.
McGinnis encourages runners who believe gluten could be causing them stomach trouble to speak to their doctor. Those who test negative for celiac but continue to experience symptoms can try strictly eliminating gluten from their diet for seven to 10 days to test for a gluten sensitivity. "If you find this clears up your woes and your runs improve, gluten is likely the culprit," McGinnis says.
But before making any major changes to your diet, seek the guidance of a registered dietitian. "Overhauling your diet to weed out gluten can get overwhelming fast," says Field. At eatright.org, you can find a local dietitian who specializes in gluten-free living and can help eliminate some of the guesswork to ensure you meet all your nutritional needs. And runners who eat pasta, bread, and other gluten-containing foods with no ill effects can feel confident knowing that sticking to your balanced diet is a great way to get all the nutrients your body needs, so you can run your best.