Gluten-free athletes appear to be popping up all over the place today. What’s up with that?
For athletes who have celiac disease, like collegiate hurdler Shelby Kaho, the benefits of a gluten-free diet are obvious. A gluten-free diet led Shelby to become stronger and faster after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Once she started following a gluten-free diet, her nutritional status improved, as did her athletic status.
What is less obvious is why so many non-celiac athletes are choosing gluten-free diets. There have been so many stories in the news about athletes claiming better performance when removing wheat, barley and rye from their diets.
The Number of Gluten-Free Athletes is Growing at a Rapid Rate
We already discussed how tennis sensation Novak Djokovic recently claimed that his dominance in professional tennis is at least partially attributable to his adoption of a gluten-free diet.
Well, gluten-free has continued to permeate professional athletics since then.
According to an article by sports nutritionist Pip Taylor on Triathlete.com, a growing number of triathletes are going gluten-free, including Simon Whitfield, Tim O’Donnell, Tyler Stewart, Heather Wurtele and Luke McKenzie.
Other websites have announced that LPGA star Sarah-Jane Smith, the entire Garmin professional cycling team, Green Bay Packer running back James Starks and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees also follow gluten-free diets. Taylor contends that if athletes have even mild gluten sensitivities, the increased gut permeability that results from intense exercise regimens can exacerbate these symptoms.
No athlete wants to compete while gassy, bloated, fatigued, or suffering from diarrhea. All are symptoms which can indicate celiac disease but can also be symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or mild gluten sensitivity, both of which can be triggered by gluten consumption.
Many athletes are finding that despite not having celiac disease they have fewer digestive upsets during training and competition if they avoid gluten. Improving their digestion may also improve their nutrient absorption and therefore their athletic performance.
Why Are Athletes Going Gluten-Free?
“Gluten-free” can be shorthand for “low-carbohydrate” for some athletes, who shun carbohydrate-rich gluten-free starches in favor of less grain-based gluten-free fare. Athletes often find that following a whole-foods-based diet with limited grains results in an ideal diet that is low-glycemic and high in fiber. They may enjoy the increased energy or improved physique that results from a diet that isn’t based around the traditional “carb-loading” foods like pasta and bread. It is also easier to maintain stable blood glucose levels during and after exercise when on a diet that minimizes processed grain products.
Although gluten-free diets aren’t automatically healthier, athletes may find themselves in much better health and with improved performance if their gluten-free diet is based around lean proteins, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, whole gluten-free grains (such as nutritional powerhouses quinoa, amaranth and millet) and lowfat dairy, rather than processed and nutritionally empty gluten-free convenience foods. Some athletes choose a gluten-free diet just during their sport’s competition/racing season but eat gluten during off-season. Some remain gluten-free year-round.
There has not been any notable research linking gluten-free diets to improved athletic performance in people without celiac disease. However, if a gluten-free diet is a reminder for an athlete to stick to a healthier, more gut-friendly diet, it has few drawbacks as long as they are finding ways to meet all their nutritional needs.
For celiac athletes like Shelby Kaho, the gluten-free diet is not a choice but a necessity. It can undoubtedly make a huge difference in athletic performance after learning you have celiac disease. As any nutrient deficiencies are reversed, she will finally be able to perform at her best. Many athletes who are diagnosed are surprised at how much their performance improves, and feeling better is also a huge bonus.
There are a plethora of gluten-free protein bars, protein shakes, sports nutrition gels, and other products available for gluten-free athletes today. In fact, there are even websites entirely devoted to gluten-free athletes, such as Gluten-Free Fitness. It’s never been a better time to be a gluten-free athlete, whether professional or amateur!
What new products have you noticed on your local store’s shelves? Which soon-to-be-released gluten products are you looking forward to?