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The Gluten Free Diet Popularity Continues

The question remains whether or not you can improve performance by going gluten free

By Lynn Tougas

Gluten-free diets have become popular to the point that some are calling the diet nothing more than an unhealthy or dangerous “fad”. Although, there appears to be an increased incidence of medically diagnosed celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity, many appear to be adopting gluten-free diets to treat celiac-like symptoms in the absence of positive test results. Several world class athletes, including Novac Djokovic (Tennis) and Dana Vollmer (Swimming) have made their claims to fame touting gluten-free dietary changes. Are gluten-free diets safe? Can going gluten-free really enhance your athletic performance?

Let’s first talk about carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a rich source of energy for athletes. If an athlete isn’t careful, many of the carbohydrates ingested may be mainly simple or processed, for example fast-food, energy bars, gels and drinks, baked goods, candy bars, crackers and popular cereals. If an athlete was on a gluten-free diet, they would be avoiding foods containing gluten, which is a protein complex found in wheat and fillers that contain wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye and triticale.

Simple carbohydrates and processed carbohydrates (which are often mainly simple) are both on the lower end of the scale of healthy carbohydrate sources. Many gluten-free foods are on the higher end of the scale of healthy carbohydrate sources as they are less processed, higher in both protein and fibre, and nutrient dense. Let’s take a look inside a popular gluten-free brownie. The almond flour treat has a whopping 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of fibre and includes 7% and 17% respectively, of the Daily Values (DV) of both calcium and iron. Calcium and iron are two very important nutrients for athletes.

Basic science will tell us that eating too many simple carbohydrates can wreak havoc on anyone’s body, not just the body of an athlete. Using mainly simple carbohydrates to fuel the body is like trying to heat your home with newspapers in the fireplace. Simple carbohydrates provide a quick spike in energy, but the energy diminishes much too quickly. This places unnecessary demands on metabolism to create more energy. In turn, endurance may suffer unless the athlete keeps ingesting more food, perhaps more daily calories than may be warranted for a healthy lean body composition. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates match body fluid osmolity, which means that this food source exits the gastrointestinal tract at the same rate as normal body fluids, which provides substantially more available calories to the energy cycle. In this way, eating complex carbohydrates is like putting a big log on the fire, it burns longer and more consistently.

By going gluten-free, regardless of a positive diagnosis of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, an athlete may improve performance simply as a result of eating superior foods that are less processed, slower-burning and higher in readily available nutrients. Further, such food choices may be higher in protein and fibre, thus providing a more sustainable source of energy for the body.

Leading dietician and author, Alexandra Anca, believes just this to be true of a safely well-balanced gluten-free diet. “Overall, the gluten-free athlete may feel better, more energetic and have less joint pain due to eating better as a whole. Perhaps due to eating less processed foods and foods lower on the glycemic index with higher fibre.”

Registered and Certified Nutritional Practitioner, and several-time Boston Marathon finisher, Lucia Mahoney says that “anyone can go gluten-free at any time should they like to see if it helps ease minor complaints”. Lucia personally abides as closely as she can to a gluten-free diet as it has eased her minor digestive complaints and she has seen a marked improvement on her performance.

All things considered, medical science is on the cusp of unfolding more about the mysteries of the immune system, and perhaps soon we will be able to bring more sense to exactly why the gluten-free diet may be helpful to athletes. Until then, we do know that prolonged and severe stress, like that incurred when training for a marathon or longer distance triathlon, may weaken the immune system causing an array of complex health issues. A gluten-free diet may in this case lessen the burden on the stressed body to digest, assimilate and absorb food, leaving a surplus of metabolism left over for performance where there may have been a deficit.

Until more research is available, it is definitely safe to go gluten-free provided you make thoughtful gluten-free choices. Try choosing a highly nutrient dense quinoa dish instead of regular wheat based pasta to load up for your next longer workout. Fuel your run or ride with a good old banana and almond butter combination. Going gluten-free with smart food choices like this, will do no harm and can most certainly enhance anybody’s athletic performance.


Lynn Tougas, RK is a seasoned endurance athlete with celiac disease who encourages you to take care of your body and fuel it well. You’ve only got one! You can find out more about Lynn, kinesiology and sport on Twitter @LTKnS or on her Facebook Page at Lynn Tougas Kinesiology and Sport.

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