The other day I received an email regarding gluten-free diets and athletes. The emailer wanted to know if there were any performance benefits of a gluten-free diet. Here's my thoughts, which are strictly based on my thoughts and experiences from athletes except for the info regarding celiac disease which is from my Medical Therapy textbook:
As far as the gluten-free diet, most people who are advised to adhere to a gluten-free diet suffer from celiac disease. Celiac disease has a lot of symptoms including diarrhea, anaemia (due to poor absorption of iron, folate and B12), indigestion, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, fatigue, and infertility. When celiac disease athletes suffer from these conditions a gluten free diet can help alleviate the symptoms. However, for the majority of athletes who don't have celiac disease, a gluten-free diet may or may not improve performance.
First off, the symptoms of bloating and stomach distress are common in athletes who consume a lot of sports nutrition products on a daily basis. I'm sure I wouldn't be surprised with the number of athletes out there who think that an adequate mid day snack is a power bar and Gatorade. More so, when intensity increases during training/racing, it is far too common that athletes suffer from a host of GI problems due to overconcentrated sugary drinks sitting undigested in the GI tract, too many calories during training and eating the wrong foods (and too much of the right foods) too close to workouts.
So, in my opinion, if a person cleans up the diet through a specific way of eating (Ex. gluten-free), a lot of "starchy/high sugar" foods will probably eliminated. The quick digesting foods that are easy to eat (and crave) before, during and after training (or anytime during the day) will absolutely cause GI distress. In relation to a gluten-free diet, I can understand how someone who chooses to avoid breads, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits and pasta will feel better with a gluten-free diet including plain meat, fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables, legumes, dairy products, fats and oils. Other grains that are gluten-free are rice, corn/maize, potato, tapioca/arrowroot, sago, soya, lentil/pea, amaranth, lupin, buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa and millet. I must say, however, that "starchy" food can be prepared in a heart healthy way and combined with protein to stabilize blood sugars. Unfortunately, it is in the evening when athletes look back on the day, evaluate the hours/intensity of training for the day and often, the goals for healthy eating and portion controlled eating go out the window. Therefore, gluten-free or not, training does not allow athletes to go overboard with unhealthy food choices (starchy or not) and portion overload. Only a calorie-controlled, balanced diet will provide athletes with the right fuels to fuel workouts. And, if the daily diet is controlled, the better your body will react to the fuels you put it in during training/racing.
Gluten-free can be difficult if you travel or order out, expensive and hard to follow for a lifetime. However, people say the same thing about vegetarianism and I have been meat-free for almost 16 years and I find it quite easy. Sure, it took me around 10 years to learn how to be a healthy vegetarian athlete but I've never looked back since the age of 12.
In order to improve performance (gluten-free or not) I recommend combing all carbs (prioritizing complex carbs, seeking foods with at least 2-3 grams fiber) with low fat/lean protein and healthy fats. I also recommend eating a little protein and/or fiber snack (ex. nuts, cheese, apple slices, lean meat, cottage cheese, edamame, milk) before meals (around 50-80 calories) in order to stabilize the blood sugar before the meal and prevent overeating.
I have worked with a lot of athletes who suffer from GI upset during races and training (unrelated to celiac disease), including bloating, cramping, bonking, etc. In my opinion, these are all side effects of a unbalanced diet, not timing the nutrition with training, working at intensities with the wrong types/quantities of fuels and not recovering properly/fueling properly with training.
I am really looking forward to my upcoming internship (I apply to the Mayo Clinic in Sept, which is a very competitive internship so I will need lots of luck getting in) which is part of the dietetic program. You would think that I would apply for an internship in sports nutrition but I am really excited to learn more about clinical nutrition. Knowing more about diseases and conditions will allow me to be a better sports nutritionist.
As far as a gluten-free diet, it's absolutely your choice. But regardless if you choose a vegetarian, 100% organic, vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free, casein-free, or anything else-free diet, you must pay close attention to the nutrients that you are missing and how to obtain those nutrients in the diet in order to meet your daily and athletic needs.