By Ryan Kohler and Jim Rutberg
To go or not to go, gluten-free that is. For many people that seems to be the question right now. We’ve all seen articles about gluten and fluten-free diets, and as a sports nutritionist, we get the question all the time – should I go gluten-free? Is it healthier, will it improve my performance, etc.? Here’s our take on the subject, and please post your comments because this can create some good discussion to educate others.
For some people a gluten-free lifestyle is a necessity. People who have certain medical conditions (Celiac Disease for instance), some types of allergies, an intolerance, or something else that precludes them from eating gluten obviously need to avoid gluten in order to stay healthy or avoid discomfort. But gluten-free eating has also been touted by some as a “healthier option”, or a “weight loss solution”, and this is leading a lot of people to try living gluten-free. The big questions are whether a gluten-free lifestyle is, in fact, healthier; whether it’s an effective nutrition plan for an athlete; and whether it’s an effective means for losing weight.
As with so many topics within human nutrition and sports nutrition, the answers are simultaneously yes and no. However, the increased popularity of gluten-free lifestyles has been great for people who have medical reasons to avoid gluten; the variety, availability, and creativity of gluten-free foods have dramatically increased over the past few years.
Things to consider about going gluten-free:
** Before we go any further, let us add again that everything below is written in the context of not having a medical condition of any type that would preclude you from consuming gluten**
- Following a gluten-free diet, while becoming easier, is still a difficult task that requires thoughtful preparation and purchasing of food both in the grocery store and when eating out in restaurants. On the plus side, the more you think about what you’re eating, the more likely you are to make choices that are better for our health and performance. Often, the worst food choices we make are the ones we make without thinking. On the other hand, variety is one of the principle ways we can ensure that we’re consuming all the nutrients we need. Restrictive dietary practices can (not always, but sometimes and especially when we’re busy) lead people to narrow their consumption to a relatively small range of food sources.
- The cost. Produce and proteins (meats, fish, etc.) won’t cost you more than usual, but gluten-free prepared foods tend to be more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. If you don’t need to eat gluten-free for medical reasons, is it worth the added cost? Well, if you’re careful and look at ingredients, many gluten-free products use ingredients you might not otherwise include in your diet. This can actually increase the variety of nutrients you consume. Wheat (gluten) is cheap and easy to use, which is why you don’t see many bargain brands going gluten-free. And there’s no real downside here; if you’re willing and able to buy gluten-free products and it’s not hindering your ability to also buy high-quality produce and proteins, then it’s your money – do what you want with it.
- The research. We have yet to see any conclusive evidence to show that gluten-free diets are beneficial for anyone outside of people who have a condition that requires a gluten-free approach. We’ve heard anecdotal reports of the anti-inflammatory effects for example, but omega-3 fats also have anti-inflammatory effects. Do you need both? Are you able to measure the impact of either? Some people report “feeling” better, which is good, but how much of that is because of the lack of gluten compared to the likely increases in consumption of fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins?
- Is it the gluten or something more universal about your food choices? Similar to my last point, those of us who choose to go gluten-free often claim wonderful health benefits, but we again have yet to see convincing empirical evidence to show that actively avoiding grains is actually better for us than simply making better choices of foods across the full spectrum of nutrients. Generally when we become more aware of our diet (through whatever means/diet possible) we make better choices and moderate our caloric intake, thus becoming “healthier”. In our experience, athletes who go from eating everything to being vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free, or vegan report similar feelings of being “healthier” and often lose weight. But we’ve seen little to no difference in the responses from athletes transitioning into any particular eating pattern.
We can feel the debate coming on already, but our goal is simply to encourage you to think more comprehensively about gluten-free lifestyles for athletes who don’t have a medical reason to avoid gluten. It’s a popular lifestyle right now, but it’s still unclear whether it’s any better than an omnivorous lifestyle that’s moderate in caloric consumption, features a wide variety of food choices, and a conscious balance from various food groups.
So, what do we tell athletes who ask if they should go gluten-free? We discuss the points above and then suggest that they give it a 4-week trial (preferably during a period of base endurance training, not while they’re peaking for a race). We don’t think it’s harmful, and just the act of having to think more about what you’re eating can be positive for many people, so there’s really nothing to lose. If you find it too restrictive or you find you don’t feel or perform any differently than you did before, you can just go back to eating gluten.
Ryan Kohler is a Senior Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, holds a Masters of Science in Sports Nutrition, and is studying to become a Registered Dietitian.Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems and co-author of seven books on training and sports nutrition, including “Chris Carmichael’s Food for Fitness”. For information on CTS coaching, camps, nutrition and performance services, visit www.trainright.com.