Non Celiac Athletes Going Gluten Free-Is there a Performance Benefit? Part 1

My Dad handed me a Men’s Journal magazine, saying “they talk about gluten free in here.” I looked at the front cover and sure enough, there it was at the top of the cover. “No More Wheat-the Surprising New Diet for Athletes.” My very sophisticated first response was “huhmph” or something along those lines. I am rarely at a loss for words, but I was caught without anything pithy to say.

Several months ago, a friend of mine had mentioned that the Garmin professional cycling team was going gluten free. (Prior to my last knee surgery I was a fairly avid cyclist-now I just can’t take the chance of crashing onto one of these very expensive knees.) The driving force behind this decision is Dr. Allen Lim. He now is working with Team Radio Shack (Lance Armstrong’s current team.) We’ll get back to the reasoning behind going gluten free in a bit. Let’s take a look at some athletes who have taken the gluten free route and their experiences.

The Men’s Journal article titled “Winning Without Wheat” discussed the Garmin’s team experience and results with going gluten free. It was noted that the athletes were gluten free during the racing season-not necessarily the off-season. During the season, the riders reported performance improvement along with reduced digestive issues. (I found it interesting that the article did not mention if the athletes had been tested for celiac disease, or if any of them chose to continue eating gluten free off season.) It was not reported if the performance improvements were perceived, or if there had been specific testing parameters on a “regular” versus gluten free diet.

An article in Bicycling magazine titled “The Word on Wheat” discussed the idea of voluntarily going gluten free, and the potential pitfalls of a gluten free diet. (which I addressed in the “nutrient deficiencies in the gluten free diet” post and refers you to Peter Bronksi’s well written review) They also mention celiac disease versus non celiac gluten intolerance.

A pro triathlete named Desiree Flicker is quoted as saying “It does end up being a lot healthier because it forces you to stay away from overly processed foods.” (Well-yeah-it can-if you avoid all the processed gluten free crap. Check out my Cagematch on the gluten free “diet” versus lifestyle.) Flicker was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 29 after dealing with gastrointestinal issues for almost 10 years. She noted a performance improvement after going gluten free. (To me this is a “well, duh” moment-of course a celiac will have improved performance on a gluten free diet-but we’ll get to that.)

There definitely appears to be some popularity in the triathlete population with individuals who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease in utilizing a gluten free diet. Team First Endurance offers some guidelines for their members who are interested in trying a gluten free diet.

The rationale presented behind originally moving the Garmin team to gluten free is basically to ease digestion. There are multiple fragments of gluten that can cause adverse reactions, even without specific wheat allergy or celiac disease. The
spectrum of non celiac gluten intolerance is an area that seems to be expanding rapidly. Improved digestion leads to improved absorption of nutrients, which can then translate into improved performance. Keep in mind that while this can be a correlation, it’s not necessarily a causation without proof. In other words, it looks like a gluten free diet may be associated with improved performance, but without specific controlled variables we cannot say that a gluten free diet caused the improvement in performance.

I was unable to find any research studies that examined the effects of a gluten free diet and performance. It does appear
that there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence where people have experienced improved performance.

Based on these anecdotes, it appears that there is potential for improved performance in athletes to eat a gluten free diet
even if they are not diagnosed with wheat allergy or celiac disease.

In Part 2 of this article we will take a look at why a gluten free diet may correlate with an improvement in performance.

In the meanwhile, check out Gluten Free and Fit 101, or for more specific information on setting up a gluten free diet for health and life click here.

Stay tuned! If you have experienced improved performance with eating gluten free speak up! Leave a comment below!

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  1. [...] Without giving a whole nutritional and physiological explanation of the benefits of a GF diet for people who have no known gluten intolerance, I will just give you my experience over the last 4 months of eating [...]

  2. [...] these issues is in a two-part article titled “Is There a Performance Benefit” posted at Gluten Free Fitness (dot com). Click here to read the second part of the article. « Gluten Free Cinco de [...]

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