Should You Go Gluten Free?

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Have you been caught up in the hype of gluten-free eating? Chances are you, a family member or at the very least a friend is currently on a gluten-free diet. Those diagnosed with Celiac Disease (an inflammatory autoimmune condition where the body is damaged in the presence of gluten) must give up 100 percent of gluten consumption as the sole treatment for this condition.

While only one percent of the population has Celiac Disease, many more Americans (an estimated six percent) are avoiding gluten for non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. Another 28 percent are giving up gluten for "health or lifestyle reasons" but have no medical history suggesting it would be beneficial.

Many claim that going gluten free stimulates weight loss, increases energy and improves mood. If trying to improve your health hasn't enticed you to forgo gluten, maybe the potential for improved performance will. In fact, many professional athletes and even entire teams have sworn off gluten to reap increased performance. One study's questionnaire even found that 40 percent of athletes (including world class and Olympic-level individuals) claimed to be gluten free at least half of the time.

Performance Enhancing Potential

Pro athletes have been experimenting with gluten-free diets for years now. Many have claimed that the dietary move led to success. Will ditching wheat allow your legs to push harder, faster and for longer? Maybe.

Gluten -free does not automatically equate to better performance or a better, healthier diet. A 2015 study published in the American College of Sports Medicine found no difference in performance between cyclists consuming gluten and removing gluten. The study only looked at short-term dietary changes, leaving room for the possibility that long-term gluten removal could have benefits. Those suffering from celiac will most definitely see gains in performance as following a gluten free diet heals the body and allows for better vitamin and mineral absorption, including iron and B12, which are vital to human performance.

While the research isn't quite there to back up gluten-free as performance enhancing method, there is some logic to say that removing or reducing gluten could help.

Gluten free grains such as corn, rice and tapioca have less fiber and protein than the wheat grain. Meaning foods made gluten-free typically have less fiber and protein and more carbohydrates. Before and during training workouts, this could be helpful.

Consuming too much protein or fiber beforehand 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 absorbs carbohydrates, leaving you with less usable fuel in the tank.

Trying to give up gluten means doing your research; reading labels, becoming more familiar with foods and making more informed dietary choices. Many trying to go gluten-free without diving into every "gluten-free alternative" will consume a better variety of grains and root vegetables to obtain carbohydrates, leaving the body with more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to work with.

This attention to what you consume can lead to a more mindful, higher quality and healthier diet overall, meaning any improvements you see are likely to come from simply taking on better eating habits and have nothing to do with the actual gluten. Whether it is the gluten or not, improving your diet is likely to provide athletic success.

Giving Up Gluten

Gluten is a protein in wheat and wheat derivatives. It is responsible for the springy texture in bread products. Taking gluten out of the diet is a big commitment. Removing main sources of gluten (pasta, breads, pizza, cereals, bagels, fried foods, breaded foods, soy sauce, beer and baked goods) is not a difficult task. However, removing gluten completely can be a tedious task as many foods have traces of the substance in them. Even oats, which are naturally gluten free, can be contaminated with large amounts of the gluten protein due to close processing with wheat grains.

Any processed food could potentially have gluten in it: sauces, dressings, soups, candy and even spice mixes. Finding the gluten in foods can be tricky as it goes by many different names and may or may not be listed on ingredients labels at all.

Going gluten free for most people not suffering from Celiac disease means removing the major sources of gluten from the diet. Looking at that list, it seems as though it would be healthier to remove these items from your diet. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Many healthy, whole grains also contain gluten: faro, spelt and barley to name a few. Cutting out all gluten containing foods can greatly restrict variety. Replacing gluten foods with non-gluten foods is where you can make or break your health status.

The Risks

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 carbs. Remember, the more hours you spend training, the higher your carbohydrate needs are. Typically, athletes need 50 to 70 percent 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.  These are very important nutrients, especially to athletes who need to be in top physical condition to meet the demands of high training loads. The bottom line here is that if your diet is diverse and well balanced in variety of gluten-free grains and plant foods, you can likely 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 the words gluten-free on a package should not be your enticement to choose that food. It is still important to read the ingredients and nutrition label, and consider how the food fits in your overall diet.

A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie, and there are more and less nutritious versions of both. That goes for other food products as well. If you did not eat boxed or frozen meals before going gluten-free, now is not the time to start. Gluten free versions of "normal" foods may actually be less nutritious due to extra sugar or fat added in an attempt to replicate the flavor and texture of its original version. Most processed items—gluten-free or not—are difficult to fit into a healthy diet. When cutting out gluten, aim to replace the removed food items with natural, whole ingredients.
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 apart from a table of bananas. Gluten-free athletes need to bring their own fuel for before, during and after to get the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition.  To combat this, find gluten-free options that are easy and pack well, then stick to them.

Making It Work

Gluten Free Eating Options

These options show how to avoid major gluten sources. To avoid gluten 100 percent make sure to check labels of all products and ingredients.

Pre-Training GF Options

  • Normal food: cereal with fruit and milk; gluten-free option: GF oatmeal with fruit and milk
  • Normal food: bagel with nut butter and jam; gluten-free option: sweet potato with honey and almonds
  • Normal food: donut; gluten-free option: rice pudding
  • Normal food: pancake with syrup; gluten-free option: buckwheat pancake with syrup

During Training Options

  • Normal food: gummies; gluten-free option: gummies
  • Normal food: cookies; gluten-free option: banana chips
  • Normal food: Nature Valley bar; gluten-free option: GF Honest Stinger Waffle

Post Training GF Options

  • Normal food: sandwich on wheat bread; gluten-free option: sandwich on brown rice wrap
  • Normal food: chicken noodle soup; gluten-fee option: chicken and rice soup
  • Normal food: bean burrito; gluten-free option: burrito bowl with rice
  • Normal food: smoothie made with milk and fruit; gluten-free option: smoothie made with milk and fruit

Bottom Line

Diet is extremely important to success in sports. 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, you might have gluten sensitivity and will be better off without it. The key is to make sure you use replacement foods to keep your diet quality high and nutritious. Try to stick to natural foods instead of relying on gluten-free processed products. 

Celiac patients should follow a gluten free diet 100 percent of the time. Those with sensitivities or those just experimenting do not need to be so strict, but anyone giving up a large ingredient list should work with a sports dietitian to ensure they are meeting all nutritional needs and getting the biggest performance boost out of their diet efforts.

READ THIS NEXT: 5 Gluten-Free Recipes That Actually Taste Good

About the Author

Lori Nedescu

Lori Nedescu is a self-taught personal chef and qualified board-certified sports dietitian-nutritionist. She holds a master’s degree in human nutrition and has racked up over 11 years professional experience in the dynamic field of wellness, including recipe demonstrator, corporate wellness coach, public speaker, digital media producer, personal nutrition advisor and freelance writer. As an elite road cyclist and marathon runner who was diagnosed with celiac disease, Nedescu understands first hand that eating a whole food, nutritious diet can greatly affect one’s performance, mood, health and overall increase quality of life. Through her brand ‘Hungry for Results@HungryForResults, she provides a fun and authentic approach to food, nutrition, fitness and lifestyle counseling.
Lori Nedescu is a self-taught personal chef and qualified board-certified sports dietitian-nutritionist. She holds a master’s degree in human nutrition and has racked up over 11 years professional experience in the dynamic field of wellness, including recipe demonstrator, corporate wellness coach, public speaker, digital media producer, personal nutrition advisor and freelance writer. As an elite road cyclist and marathon runner who was diagnosed with celiac disease, Nedescu understands first hand that eating a whole food, nutritious diet can greatly affect one’s performance, mood, health and overall increase quality of life. Through her brand ‘Hungry for Results@HungryForResults, she provides a fun and authentic approach to food, nutrition, fitness and lifestyle counseling.

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