As 3 million Americans with celiac disease can attest to, along with 18 million Americans with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, eating gluten can cause gastrointestinal trouble, inflammation, muscle fatigue and mental fog—all things that can interfere with an active lifestyle and your workout regimen.
Now, a surprising thesis is emerging that affects just about everyone: Ditching gluten from your diet may give you an athletic edge, even if you’re not gluten intolerant.
In the book, “The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life,” co-author and endurance athlete Peter Bronski, who has celiac disease, says that gluten can wreak havoc on any athlete’s body. “Gluten can impact an athlete’s performance in a number of ways,” notes Bronski. “For example by impairing digestion and nutrient absorption, by causing gastrointestinal distress, by placing added stress on the immune system and by causing inflammation that inhibits recovery and impedes performance.”
And Bronski knows this firsthand: “I’ve been an athlete for most of my life, but when I became very sick in my mid- to late twenties with celiac disease, all that changed. My symptoms included malnutrition, fatigue, chronic diarrhea and acute abdominal pain. Going gluten-free following my diagnosis in 2007 dramatically restored me to health, such that today I’m a stronger athlete—primarily running ultramarathons through the mountains—than I ever was before.”
Nixing this protein, which is commonly found in wheat, barley and rye, can not only reduce or eliminate those nasty side effects, Bronski says it can also boost an athlete’s performance on the track and in the gym. “When the body is already stressed, as under an athlete’s high training load, or when the athlete is already well-trained and looking to squeak the last few percentage points of performance out of his or her body, gluten’s impact can take on heightened significance,” he says.
So does this mean we have to completely rid our diets of gluten to notice an impact in athletic performance? That depends.
“For athletes with conditions such as celiac disease, this is an all-or-nothing thing,” Bronski explains. “Whether they’re an athlete or not, a condition like celiac disease requires strict, lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.”
But for people without a gluten intolerance, athletic performance can also be improved by cutting out gluten, according to Bronski, resulting in less bloating, reduced inflammation, and better post-workout recovery.
The Best Way to Go Gluten-Free
If you’re considering cutting out gluten either by choice or necessity, keep in mind that just because a product is labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. “If an athlete swaps traditional cookies for gluten-free cookies, you’ve taken out the gluten—a potentially good thing—but a cookie is still a cookie,” he says. “So you need to pay attention to other variables in an athlete’s diet, too.”
Heather Mangieri, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Nutrition CheckUp in Pittsburgh, agrees: “A gluten-free diet does not necessarily equal a healthy diet. It is still important to have an eating plan that includes a variety of foods from all of the food groups.”
That also means staying away three types of food: “The worst offenders—no surprise—are probably foods like cake and cookies, because they have the gluten, plus lots of sugar and unhealthy fat,” says Bronski. “But athletes should already be eating those sparingly. Next up would be food made from bread wheat—such as traditional bread, bagels and pizza—because bread wheat contains more toxic forms of gluten, plus they give an athlete carbs without much else in the way of nutrition. Third would be [white] pasta. Pasta such as spaghetti is made from durum wheat, which has less toxic forms of gluten, but athletes are known to eat pasta in very large quantities, especially when carb loading, so it could be problematic as well.”
Instead, your best bet is a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats and carefully chosen whole grains, according to Mangieri. “The difference is in the grains you choose,” she says.
The best sources of carbohydrates to aid in training and recovery are flax, quinoa, amaranth, millet, corn, potatoes, buckwheat, soy, tapioca and wild rice, recommends Mangieri. For snacks, opt for popcorn, rice cakes and gluten-free pretzels. And of course, fruits and vegetables add to the carbohydrate need of athletes without any gluten.
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