Quick Link: Gluten-Free Athletes

Outside Magazine recently discussed the trend of athletes going gluten free for better performance (here). This comes on the tail of news that elite tennis player Novak Djokovic has gone gluten free as well, which suits his #2-in-the-world self just fine.

I’m curious about this. The story-opener about climber Dave Hahn almost doesn’t apply because he’s been diagnosed with all-out celiac disease. What’s far more interesting to me is whether or not an athlete who doesn’t have celiac disease can actually improve performance.

There seems to be building anecdotal evidence that this is the case. In the article, mountain biker Brian Lopes claims to be riding 5-10% faster. But why?

The article points vaguely to inflammation in the body without explaining why. I would buy the argument that gluten and its contributions to inflammation could hinder recovery. And I certainly agree that wheat products produce lots of intestinal gas, it’s a trigger for me for sure.

What I humbly disagree with is this statement:

Fasano doesn’t recommend everyone go gluten free—after all, wheat is an effective fuel for athletes who can tolerate it. But since the Garmin-Cervélo team gave it up, Ketchell says that no rider has told him the diet isn’t worthwhile. “Part of that,” he says, “is that eating gluten-free foods forces you to avoid processed foods, and that just makes you healthier.”

I’m not sure wheat is an effective fuel for anybody. Even if it’s harmless for someone, it’s taking the place of far better nutrient options like meat and vegetables. And maybe in some parts of the country it’s true that gluten-free eating forces you to avoid processed foods, but around here, there are plenty of equally junky gluten-free substitutions like breads, cookies, and pasta.

I’m often confused about how and why gluten-free folks stop there. In the absence of wheat, they tend to rely heavily on other grains and carbohydrates like quinoa, legumes, potatoes, and rice. If you believe gluten is a gut irritant, why not eradicate all of them?

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