Gluten is a combination of two proteins, present in a number of grains such as wheat, rye and barley (1). It provides dough with a light and elastic texture, allowing it to rise and hold its shape and is found in most pastas, breads and baked products.
There are a few conditions such as celiac disease, and which provide genuine medical reasons for people to avoid gluten. Celiac is an auto immune disease where digested gluten causes the body’s immune system to attack itself and damage the lining of the gut (1). As well as causing major discomfort, distress and pain, the damaged gut lining also results in poor absorption of nutrients, a general feeling of fatigue, and malnutrition (1). Non Celiac wheat allergies can also cause stomach discomfort, asthma, eczema and other skin irritations (1).
Pasta and bread have been providing the much needed fuel and carbohydrates for endurance athletes for many years. However, many non-celiac elite endurance athletes, and in fact whole teams, have been turning away from gluten in the last few years, praising the benefits of a gluten free diet on performance (2).
The Gluten Free rationale for non-Celiac athletes
Humans lack the necessary enzymes to break down gluten proteins, unlike cows and some other mammals (1). This results in large undigested proteins entering the small intestine, slowing down the absorption of other food and nutrients, causing digestive stress (1). In periods of heavy training, competition and carbohydrate / gluten consumption, this can cause digestion issues and impact energy levels at the most critical time for performance (2).
Digestion issues are already very common amongst endurance athletes. The prolonged and intense physical exertion of endurance sport diverts blood and fluids away from the digestive system, to areas of the body where they are more needed such as the leg muscles (2). This causes the digestive system to work inefficiently during exercise. The endurance athlete will then digest large volumes of calories to fuel their exercise, often rich in sugar and carbohydrates full of gluten, which will remain undigested and further slowdown the absorption of nutrients. This further compromises the athlete’s digestive system.
For this reason, many elite endurance athletes have turned gluten free to reduce their already present digestive issues (2). A recent study involving over 1000 Australian athletes showed that 41% claimed to already be on a gluten free diet, with only 13% medically diagnosed with celiac or a gluten disorder (2). As yet there has been little scientific evidence as to the inflammatory effect of gluten for non-celiac’s and the evidence is mostly anecdotal, however many elite athletes are singing the praises of a gluten free diet (2).
Avoiding gluten also cuts out a lot of processed, refined and high sugar type foods that are often low in other important nutrients. It requires you to be more mindful of your diet which can also help with weight loss. It is possible that an athlete’s gluten rich diet can be replaced with a diet full of nutrients which are easier on the digestive system, so long as athletes can consume adequate carbohydrates to fuel their high energy requirements without impacting on their performance.
- Hadjivassiliou, Marios, et al. “Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain.” The Lancet Neurology3 (2010): 318-330.
- Lis, D. M., Stellingwerff, T., Shing, C. M., Ahuja, K. K., & Fell, J. W. (2015). Exploring the Popularity, Experiences, and Beliefs Surrounding Gluten-Free Diets in Nonceliac Athletes. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 25(1), 37-45.