The Great Gluten Debate
Does going gluten-free help with sports performance? Let's find out.
The Upshot, Upfront:
Unless you have a diagnosed issue, it doesn’t appear that avoiding gluten helps with sports performance.
If you must avoid gluten, be careful to replace those grain products with healthy (not overly-processed) foods that offer similar nutrition.
Considering what a protein-lovin’ society we are, it’s remarkable how much we hate gluten. Many Americans detest it with a passion normally reserved for evil dictators, the media, and pants.
But a closer look at this grain-based protein reveals it’s probably not such a villain after all—and avoiding it isn’t the sports performance silver bullet many think it is.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (wheat and barley’s bastard stepchild). It works as a binder, holding bread together and giving it stretch. Thus, the word “glutenous.” Without gluten, pizza joints across the globe wouldn’t be nearly as delightful given the beloved stretch-the-crust-by-twirling-it-in-the-air trick would no longer work.
On second thought, maybe pizza joints would become more delightful since the gluten-free crust might burst apart mid-air, pelting unsuspecting patrons with blobs of dough and causing general indignant chaos.
The science regarding gluten issues.
For some people, gluten is genuinely problematic. About 1% of the world population suffers from Celiac disease, a chronic digestive and immune disorder that tears up the small intestine. It’s a you-know-if-you-have-it condition filled with bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
There’s also a condition called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” thought to maybe impact 6% of American—although it’s tough to diagnose because, as this article in the World Journal of Gastroenterology puts it, there’s a “lack of reliable biomarkers.” In other words, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s happening or measure it beyond the sufferer’s perception.
However, one biomarker that’s very trackable is the fact that, as of 2019, the gluten-free market was valued at $4.3 billion and estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027. I’m not saying that some people don’t have a gluten issue, but I am saying that a lot of other people have been duped into believing they have a gluten issue—whether they do or not.
One example of the lack of clarity regarding gluten issues is this 2018 double-blind study. 20 patients suspected of having non-celiac gluten sensitivity were fed muffins with or without gluten. Surprisingly, the majority of the group experienced more severe symptoms after eating the gluten-free muffins.
There’s certainly a placebo effect to consider here. Eliminating something from your diet that you believe to be harmful is very empowering—and that alone can make you feel great.
I also suspect that when people eliminate gluten, they also eliminate junk made out of refined white flour while adding in extra fruits, legumes, and other veggies. Of course, they feel better because they’ve shifted their diet to healthier choices.
Sometimes, people get touchy when you question their non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I would never tell anyone that they don’t have gut issues. That’s like telling someone that they’re not sad or they don’t have a butt cramp. If you have an issue, you have an issue.
However, I am suggesting that maybe something else is causing the issue. After all, grains are complex structure with lots of nutrients in them.
Case in point, Professor Peter Gibson was one of the researchers to first establish the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity back in 2011. He backpedaled when his subsequent 2013 study found no negative impact from gluten on subjects with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Does gluten impact sports performance?
The Great Gluten Debate is especially vibrant in the exercise nutrition space. According to a survey published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, over 41% of nonceliac athletes cut their gluten intake by 50% to 100%. Only 13% did so for reported medical conditions.
Again, I understand that some people have gluten problems, but that many? The same researchers from the survey above did a controlled, randomized, double-blind, crossover, follow-up study (all those adjectives just mean the study was really accurate) in which 13 competitive endurance cyclists were either fed a gluten-free or gluten-containing diet for seven days. There was no difference in their performance.
So why am I hatin’ on gluten-free diets? It’s not that I’m hatin’ on them per se. I mean, if you want to avoid gluten, that’s your choice. I just question if it’s really worth it.
Quoting the journal Sports, “Any diet that restricts certain foods or food groups can increase the risk of low energy availability and deficiencies in key nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and micronutrients.” Whenever you eliminate a food, you also eliminate a bunch of nutrients, so you need to put effort into replacing those nutrients. In the case of wheat, barley, and rye (and triticale, I guess), you’re reducing various nutrients like B-vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and potassium —but you’re also reducing carb calories that can be tough to get into your diet without calorically-dense grains. Athletes interested in performing well really can’t mess around with missing any of these nutrients.
You can probably fill this gap with a lot of rice and potatoes, but most people end up replacing their breads, pastas, and cereals with gluten-free breads, pastas, and cereals which, by at least one estimate, are well over 200% more expensive on average. And a lot of these packaged foods end up being just as processed as the junk you ditched, if not more so. That’s money you could be spending on skis or shoes or carbon rims—you know, stuff that can actually help you go faster!
Then there’s the fact that many athletes travel to their events. Maintaining any specialized diet on the road is tough—including a gluten-free one.
If you have Celiac disease or a diagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, then going gluten-free makes sense. But if there’s nothing wrong with your gut, there’s no need to ditch gluten. By all the current indicators, it won’t help athletic performance.
However, there’s something to be said for restoring balance to a diet high in processed foods and low in fruits and veggies, especially if your gut doesn’t feel right. Maybe try ditching (or simply reducing) junky gluten, like white bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, cakes, and other misc. pastries.
I don’t know if it’ll improve your performance, but it’ll certainly improve your health.
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