Non Celiac Athletes Going Gluten Free-Is there a Performance Benefit? Part 2

In Part 1, we reviewed some mainstream and popular athletes who had gone the gluten-free route. The experiences that they shared showed a perceived improvement in performance on a gluten free diet. These athletes were not diagnosed with celiac disease. So, what gives?

image credit svilen001

There are several potential reasons why the athletes may have in fact shown improved performance. These are essentially educated guesses, as we don’t really KNOW.

The sciency reasons:

1-The athletes were undiagnosed, but had celiac disease.

The statistics for celiac disease, and the numbers of undiagnosed, stagger me every time. Approximately 1% of the population (in the US, Canada and Europe) is estimated to have celiac disease. Here’s the kicker-95% of those are undiagnosed.
It’s very feasible that some of these athletes have been walking around with celiac disease and didn’t know it. Put them on a gluten free diet and all kinds of magic happens. We’ll talk about the magic in a bit.

2-The athletes were gluten sensitive.

This is a bit of a can of worms. “Gluten sensitivity” is a big umbrella term that covers a bunch of stuff. Celiac disease falls under this umbrella. However, as we are learning, celiac disease as it is currently diagnosed only refers to damage to the small intestine, which is also referred to as gluten sensitive enteropathy. Gluten can cause damage to many other areas of the body, not just the gastrointestinal system (your guts, for easy reference:) Gluten sensitive neuropathy
(nervous system-brain and peripheral nerves) is recognized as being the most common. However, gluten can affect many other systems of the body, and for more information on the various conditions I recommend you check out Shelly Stuart’s incredibly thorough 12 part series at her Celiac Nurse blog, for which a link will be at the end of this post.

A study performed in Iceland back in 1992 showed that 25% of the randomly selected 200 participants (48) showed high levels of gliadin antibodies. Antibodies are produced when the body mounts an attack against the offending invader-in this case, gliadin, the a portion of the gluten protein. 14 of these 48 people also had gluten sensitive enteropathy, or what is commonly referred to as celiac disease-gluten sensitivity of the gut. 25% is a lot of people to show a form of gluten intolerance. I’ve heard varying numbers and statistics thrown around for gluten sensitivity, even as high as 70%. This is difficult to pin down though. Interestingly, a study published in the journal Gut in 2007 (frustratingly, I could not
access the free full text, but the summary only-luckily there was an article that covered it on celiac.com) showed all NON-CELIAC participants in the study showed an antibody response when challenged with gliadin. All of ‘em. Not some, all.
And that brings us to…

3-Eliminating gluten can have positive effects for all.

I’m going to preface this by saying that more research needs to be done, before the wheat growers association (I made that up, I don’t know that an organization by that name exists, but I’m sure there is one to that effect) comes and sues me. It is possible (how’s that for covering my butt) that wheat gliadin can cause intestinal permeability and immune system response in the intestines. Also, this permeability can cause additional damage to other areas of the body, including the nervous system. And given the research mentioned above, this may extend to everyone, not just those with diagnosed/undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It appears that there is a huge spectrum of tolerance to these wheat proteins-ranging from absolutely no apparent ill effects, on to celiac disease and related autoimmune disorders.

4-Improved absorption of nutrients all around!

If these athletes did have an undiagnosed gluten sensitive enteropathy, then it stands to reason that with eliminating gluten they were able to absorb more nutrition. More nutrition=feeling better=performing better. If it was a gluten sensitive neuropathy, they were able to think better. Thinking better=improved performance.

OK, enough science. You asleep yet?

Here’s the less technical reasons these athletes may have improved their performance.

1-Eliminating gluten meant eliminating a large number of processed foods.

Let’s be honest. Aside from hidden gluten, eating a gluten free diet does not have to be hard. Although I am grateful to the manufacturers for giving us gluten free options of processed food-there is just as much junk that’s gluten free as there is gluten full. Gluten free junk is still junk. Naturally gluten free foods are easy, can be inexpensive and highly nutritious. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store, keep your diet primarily fruits, veggies, meats/fish, beans, nuts, eggs, potato and rice. Easy peasy. It also is inherently more nutrient dense than eating processed food-gluten free or not. More nutrients=more fuel to muscles and brain=higher performance.

2-Eating gluten free made them more aware of overall food quality.

Sometimes as athletes we just look at food as fuel. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, we perform better with
higher quality fuel. Like a high performance car. Put in crap fuel, get crappy acceleration and knocks. With the added attention to eating gluten free, additional attention can be given to high quality food. This is exactly why I feel so strongly that celiac disease is a blessing in disguise. Built it reminder to eat well, should we choose to perceive it in that light. The athletes on the Garmin team (and now Radio Shack) are certainly receiving a very high nutrient density diet. These guys make their living performing, and their livelihood depends on them performing well.

So I have to say that yes, there can absolutely be a benefit to non celiac diagnosed athletes eating gluten free. Just like
in everything though, it depends on what you eat and how much-not just that it’s gluten free.

It will be interesting to see the press on the Radio Shack cycling team and the gluten free diet as the Tour de France gets closer. Lance’s return to the biggest race in cycling to sure to get a ton of coverage.

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experiences! For more of my nutritional ramblings (and some really great free information click here, and here for Gluten Free and Fit 101.)

Resources:
Gluten Intolerance Group on Gluten Sensitivity

US Department of Health and Human Service on Celiac Disease

Gluten Sensitivity via Wikipedia

Article review: Do Adults with High gliadin antibody Concentrations have Subclinical Gluten Intolerance?


Celiac Disease Review

Article review: Non-celiacs Show Interleukin 15 Production when Challenged with Gliadin Peptides

12 part series on Symptoms of Celiac Disease by Shelly Stuart

Filed Under: celiac diseaseGluten FreeGluten Free Athletes

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  1. Rahim Samuel says:

    If eating glutten free food will take away most of the processed food we consume on a daily basis, then that’s reason enough for me to at least try it.

    Rahim Samuel

  2. Erin says:

    Absolutely agreed that whether or not you live gluten free, minimizing processed food is a smart decision on the road to improved eating habits.

  3. Very interesting, I had no idea this was going on lol.

    The biggest thing about going gluten-free is that it motivates people to actually fix up their diet. Eating mainly whole foods will definitely have a big impact overall. And I like eating lol.

    Great work Erin.

    - Jon

  4. Erin says:

    See Jon, you study too much ;)
    Just kidding! Keep your nose in those books!
    Thank you though :)
    But yes-anything that moves us toward “real food” is a good step. And eating is good.

  5. LOL, that was funny. =]

  6. Great post, I bet a lot of work and research went into this article.

  7. Erin says:

    Thanks Alexis! Yes-a lot of research and time, but well worth it to get good information out!

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