There are always hot-topics when it comes to training, nutrition and recovery strategies in endurance sports. Sometimes people start hearing that some top pros do this or don’t do that, and end up thinking that it’s a key to success, or a secret to better performance. Gluten-free diet is definitely one of those things that has gotten a lot of attention over the last few years, and is something I’ve been asked about at least a few times. So what’s my take on it? Am I gluten free?
I’ve done a little reading on this topic (not a ton, but some), and have come to think that if it works for you, then go for it. If you’re not sure if it would be good or work for you, then by all means try a gluten-free or low-gluten diet to see how it works for you. Maybe it’s worth while for you, but like a lot of trendy topics, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence that it’s necessarily good for everyone. There are plenty of people who make extreme claims that basically convey that if you aren’t gluten-free, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot, but claims like that are usually hyperbole and shouldn’t be given much credence. The bottom line is, there are plenty of world-class athletes in the last few years who’ve said they’ve gone gluten-free and think it’s great for them. But, there also are a lot of world class athletes who aren’t remotely gluten-free and still have phenomenal performances, and probably outnumber gluten-free athletes several times over.
The general rationale for a gluten free diet being that it will be easier on your digestive system and/or reduce total system inflammation in your body. Clearly, the athlete’s body is under a lot of stress and has a lot of inflammation that is either specific to the tissues being stressed or systemic as a symptom of total body stress and increased exposure to free radical damage from oxygen and pollution in the air (athletes breathe a lot more air than non-athletes). Some people have celiac disease (1% or less of the general population) and really have to stay away from wheat and gluten in all forms, but others seem to have wheat or gluten sensitivity and appear to do well to avoid it most or all of the time or to limit consumption. You should already know if you have celiac disease (you probably don’t), and if you do, are already on a gluten free diet.
If you have never been low-gluten or gluten-free, then it may be good to try it out, because it may work for you as it has for others. Be sure to replace the wheat and glutenous products with other carbohydrates with a high nutrient content (ideally a lot of starchy vegetables and fruits, and maybe some gluten-free grains). Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will ensure that you get plenty of B-vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, pottassium, fiber, etc. and more than you would have if you were eating grains instead. Generally, I think that the higher nutrient content of fruits and starchy vegetables warrants increased consumption in itself, but in light of the topic at hand, reduced grain consumption increases the need to look for other sources of carbohydrate that will also provide well-rounded nutrition.
If anything, I think that the fact that you will almost certainly get higher vitamin and mineral content into your body with a diet that replaces some or all grains with fruits and vegetables is reason enough to make changes to that effect. Eating those foods will yield a more alkaline dietary balance that will be good for health and performance, so aside from the motivation (reduced gluten or increased nutrition), eating more fruits and vegetables should always be a top dietary priority for athletes, just as it should be for the general population.
Am I gluten free? No, but I do try to eat fruits and vegetables for carbohydrate rather than grains as much as I can. I think that’s a safe bet, whether or not gluten has anything to do with it.