“Gluten-free” is a phrase that’s tossed around a lot these days. Even some professional athletes, whose bodies rely on good nutrition to fuel their performance, are cutting gluten out of their diets. Proponents of the gluten-free lifestyle claim it makes them feel better, improves digestion and, in turn, enables a better performance on the playing field. Many athletes—including some who will be competing at this summer’s Olympic Games—are skipping gluten in the hopes of gaining an athletic edge. But skeptics wonder why anyone without a known allergy to gluten might see any benefits at all from such a diet (other than, perhaps, a placebo effect). Here’s a look at the possible pros and cons of going gluten-free, whether or not you’re a pro athlete.
The Basics of Gluten
Gluten is a complex mixture of glutenin and gliadin protein molecules, which are found primarily in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye. “Gluten is the ‘glue’ that gives dough its elasticity and makes bread fluffy,” explains Amber Weiss, PA-C, LAc, a One Medical Group provider based in San Francisco. Gluten is also often added to food as an inexpensive protein source and to sauces and dressings as a thickener.
Giving up Gluten May Help Some
The Garmin-Cervelo pro-cycling team has been riding gluten-free since 2008, attributing their improved performance to the anti-inflammatory effects of the diet. “A properly done trial elimination diet will significantly improve symptoms in someone who is gluten intolerant,” says Weiss. “If someone perceives that his or her athletic performance is better, it could be a placebo effect, it could be due to a generally improved diet, or it could be an indicator that the athlete had a subclinical issue with gluten.”
Athletes who have been diagnosed with celiac disease will absolutely feel better—and see an improvement in performance—from cutting gluten out of their diets. “Celiac disease is the diagnosis given when gluten induces an immune response that damages the small intestine,” says Weiss. “In people with celiac disease, the finger-like projections called ‘villi’ in their small intestines become flat and lose the ability to absorb nutrients properly.” That can result in serious problems like anemia and osteoporosis, as well as in fatigue—all of which will have a major impact on athletic performance.
It’s important to note, however, that for individuals without any sensitivity to gluten, giving it up will provide no known health benefits–and that includes an athletic edge.
Getting Tested for Celiac Disease
Anyone who suffers from symptoms that could be attributed to gluten can be tested for celiac disease. A blood test is the most common procedure. The blood test has a high risk of giving false negative results, however, so a biopsy of the small intestine may be necessary to make an accurate determination. There’s also a saliva test that may have a higher sensitivity and specificity than the blood test. “But the gold standard for people with any symptoms is a three-month gluten elimination diet,” says Weiss. Since you can’t test for a milder sensitivity to gluten, eliminating it from your diet completely—and continuing to assess how your body feels and how you perform in your sport—is the best and safest approach.
While celiac disease affects only about 1 in 133 people, the latest numbers indicate that as many as one in five people who don’t have celiac disease may nevertheless suffer from some degree of gluten sensitivity, according to Weiss. “Part of the problem is that the gluten content of wheat is 50 times higher than it was 70 years ago,” she says. “Our bodies were never designed to process the genetically altered gluten molecule in this supersized state.”
The Bottom Line: A Good Diet Is Key
For some people, the negative effects of gluten are all too obvious. Digestive issues such as gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea are the most commonly reported. But the symptoms and conditions associated with gluten intolerance may be vast and varied, and may include any of the following, for example: depression, chronic fatigue, migraines, poor immune function, psoriasis and hypothyroidism. “For individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten is like the gasoline on the fire that causes inflammation throughout the body,” says Weiss.
For people in good health, there is no known harm in trying a gluten-free diet. Eliminating gluten may mean eliminating some processed foods and focusing on a diet rich in lean meats and fish, plenty of vegetables and fruit, and whole grains that don’t contain gluten, like brown rice. But the real performance-enhancing secret for athletes is an overall healthy diet—and for those without any issues with gluten, that can include nutritious whole grains.