How Going Gluten Free Can Help Your Performance & Your Waistline

You have probably heard some of the buzz surrounding gluten-free diets in the media, and you’ve probably seen the displays of “gluten-free” labels on foods in your local grocery store. Maybe you’ve considered going gluten free but are not sure what it’s all about. In this article, I will examine the role a gluten free diet can have in athletics, but the health benefits of gluten free go far beyond performance and can help everyone from the professional fighter to grandparents and children alike.

People that go gluten free have historically been diagnosed with celiac disease, an allergy to gluten, a family of proteins in wheat, rye, and barley.  There are five of twenty proteins in the family that the body has a hard time digesting. The body will exhibit an immune response in the small intestine whenever one of these proteins is present. The protein Gliadin, which is found in gluten, is one of the main culprits that people are sensitive to, but there are four others. Some people also theorize that it’s FODMAPS that people that are sensitive to gluten are responding to. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to test for yourself with a simple elimination diet. The adverse reaction to gluten aggravates the gut lining and causes a host of health problems. More on this later, first let’s talk about our gluten-free athletes.

The Rise of Gluten-Free Athletes

Gluten free diets for athletes first made a splash in 2010 when the entire Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team went gluten free, and Men’s Health wrote about it in their Winning Without Wheat article.  The team experienced better digestion and therefore improved recovery, sleep, and energy.  The team also reported feeling less bloating, gastrointestinal distress and stiffness and saw a marked improvement in their performance with a gluten free lifestyle. These facts are quite notable considering the team was never diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or celiac – they just cut out gluten and saw results.

Also in 2010 MMA got its first spokesperson for a gluten free life. Welterweight Dennis “Superman” Hallman (51-14-2) was diagnosed with celiac disease. He reported his training was vastly improved and he could now complete with energy and confidence. He has won 3 of his last four fights since going gluten free in May 2010.

In 2011 gluten free got an even bigger boost when tennis star Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with celiac by his nutritionist. He immediately cut out all wheat/gluten and most starches and processed grains as well from his diet.  This nutritional change seemed to be the catalyst that sprung him to a year more gloriously successful than anyone imagined. He went 64-3 winning ten titles and huge multi-million dollar prize money. Even though he suffered a back injury at the end of the season, he finished with a winning percentage of 95.5 percent, just shy of John McEnroe’s winning percentage of 96.5 in 1984 when he had an 82-3 record. Nonetheless, McEnroe still said after the U.S. Open that Djokovic is having “the greatest year in the history of our sport.”

(Update 11/5/2012: Djokovic dominated rankings in 2012! The 25-year-old will be officially crowned 2012 year-end world No.1 at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London in November.)

Recently Nate Diaz also talked about his gluten free diet after his win against Cerrone in UFC 141 saying it helps him maintain his weight and keeps him feeling good.

Other gluten-free athletes include pro football players Drew Brees, James Starks and Clint Trickett.  Kyle Korver of the Chicago Bulls is gluten free as well as Dana Vollmer, a USA swimmer who went on to win the 2011 gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly after going gluten free.

Gluten Sensitivity, Associated Diseases, and Testing

However, for every athlete reaping the benefits of a gluten-free diet, there are likely some that are damaging their bodies eating gluten. Tennis star Venus Williams was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disorders have a strong connection with gluten sensitivity. Testimonials like this one of a man with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylitis are not uncommon.  He cut out not just gluten but all grains, dairy, legumes, and sugar with amazing results and superior management of his symptoms, medication free.

Gluten sensitivity may not be as rare as people previously thought. Recent findings estimate about 2 million individuals in the United States have celiac disease or about 1 in 133 people. However, the testing for gluten sensitivity has been wildly substandard.  The method for testing used by health practitioners in the past would only be statistically accurate if the intestinal damage had already cause total villus atrophy.  In other words, you would only test positive for celiac if the disease had already destroyed your gut, but you most likely wouldn’t test positive in the early stages.  I don’t know about you, but that is a bum deal. Today, that’s all changed, as Cyrex Labs came out with a new way to test for gluten sensitivity in January 2011 that is accurate regardless of the amount of damage done to the gut.

There still are many challenges in the field of gluten and health as this test is not the first one your doctor is likely to recommend if you are having a health problem.  There is a lack of education in the medical system regarding gluten sensitivity, even though there are over 1800 medical papers written about gluten sensitivity, liking it with all sorts of health conditions.  Dr. Thomas O’Brien is the leading expert on gluten sensitivity and celiac. Dr. O’Brien says that 7 out of 10 people with a health concern have an autoimmune reaction to gluten and are ten times more likely to get an autoimmune disease. O’Brien also states that gluten can affect every cell in the body: the brain (Alzheimer’s, ADD, and autism), the kidneys, the liver (autoimmune hepatitis, hepatic carcinomas), the musculoskeletal system (joint pain, osteoporosis), and the skin (eczema, skin rashes) and the list goes on – that is just a few.

Today’s “Franken-Grain” Causes Some Major Problems

So why does wheat cause all these problems?  Well, first it’s important to note that the wheat we eat these days is not the same wheat our grandparents consumed when they were kids. Back in the 60 and 70’s the government was very concerned about overpopulation and world hunger. They began tinkering around in the lab to create crops that could solve this problem.  In the process, they created the wheat we know today. It’s a dwarfed, genetically mutated plant that is biologically different that its ancestors.

Dr. William Davis Author of Wheat Belly writes about this “Franken-Grain” and its ill effects on our health. He states that this new breed of wheat has a high glycemic index, aka raises insulin and can cause weight gain. It also increases appetite, which is ideal for food manufacturers but bad for our waistlines. Furthermore, it can contribute to illness and increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems.

Amazing All-Over Health Benefit from Gluten Free Living

Dr. Davis got into the study of gluten-free diets because in his practice as a preventative cardiologist he was looking for a way to help patients lower their cholesterol and prevent heart disease. He found compelling evidence for gluten free diets and started to advise his clients to go gluten free. The results were astounding with patients coming back with not only improved blood panels but 30 pounds or more weight loss, reversal of many various health conditions from type 2 diabetes and ulcerative colitis to psoriasis and hair loss – all this just from eliminating one thing from their diet, gluten. From what Dr. Davis has seen in his practice and the research he has done he believes that no one should be eating gluten regardless of their celiac status, as it offers no health benefits and only increases health risks.

Elimination Diets and Moderation

I’m not as extreme in my stance against gluten as Dr. Davis. However, I do suggest everyone go gluten-free for two-three weeks to see it if affects their health and athletic performance positively. For information on how to try an elimination diet check out this Precision Nutrition graphic.

If eating a gluten-free diet helps, great! Avoid it. If not, I suggest including wheat in the diet moderately, as there are far more nutritious forms of starches that offer energy for athletes, squashes, yams, potato and rice are healthy, whole food options for carbohydrates that are far superior to processed wheat.

How to Begin a Gluten Free Diet

So if you don’t eat gluten what do you do? Carb-load on rice and corn?  Maybe, if you are an endurance athlete like a marathoner, triathlete or cyclist where high carbohydrate foods like grains are somewhat necessary to keep exercising for hours, but all grains cause some level of gut irritation and inflammation.  Besides even if you aren’t too concerned about inflammation and gut health, (but you should be) vanity might convince you to be totally grain free, as all those tasty gluten-free products and other grains are still processed foods that spike insulin levels and promote weight gain

If you want to improve health gluten free is a huge step in the right direction, but given the insulin spiking, inflammatory nature of all grains, legumes and even most dairy, a real food diet free of all those problematic foods is the next step up.  For athletes looking to transition to this way of eating the core elements are getting carbohydrates from mostly veggies, sweet potatoes a little fruit and maybe some white rice post-workout.  Making sure your diet includes healthy protein sources at every meal like grass-fed meats, wild caught fish, and pasture raised poultry & eggs as well as plenty of good fats from coconut, olive oil, avocado and possibly grass-fed butter if you tolerate dairy.

However, as I tell my clients if you’re the type of person that needs to take things one step at a time, start by going 100% gluten free, see how you look, feel and perform and decide for yourself. You’ll have all the proof you need, and maybe then you’ll be willing to make another small sacrifice for your health.

Common non-gluten grains include amaranth, buckwheat, rice (brown, white, wild), millet, quinoa, and SOME oats.

Although oats do not naturally contain gluten, they are frequently cross-contaminated with gluten because they are processed at mills that also handle wheat; avoid them unless they come with a label that says, “gluten-free.”