The Great Gluten Question: To go gluten-free or not?

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**

 

 

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

17 Responses to “The Great Gluten Question: To go gluten-free or not?”

  1. Nancy on

    Very interesting article as it has been a topic of discussion amongst us most recently. However, I am curious if there is any relationship between “gluten” and “msg”. Can you shed some light on this?

    Thank you

    Reply
  2. ThinkForYourself on

    Just to encourage further criticism: go to an alternative health specialist (I am generalizing, of course, as there are terrific ones) with any ailment. Their recommendation: cow’s milk and gluten free!

    And for fun, disguise yourself, go back again with a different ailment and hear this advice some more.

    Life is challenging, food should be a simple pleasure. Embrace being.

    Reply
  3. Melissa on

    Hi guys,

    I’m a nutritionist, exercise science geek, registered yoga teacher and gluten-free recipe developer. I specialize in thriving on the GF diet (I also have celiac disease). I’ve been living GF for over a decade now. Even backpacked half the Colorado Trail (250 miles) recently, making and dehydrating all my GF backpacking food.

    I enjoyed your article and agree with most of what you say, although I’m finding more and more evidence that most of us have some sort of sensitivity to gluten, whether we test positive for it or not. But hard, scientific data on gluten’s impact on the health of genetically diverse individuals who do not test positive for celiac disease is skimpy at best. Too many variables. Having said that, I’m also finding interesting connections between gluten and neuro-degenerative diseases (long story on that). Gluten is a neuro-toxin for many people. The gluten we’re consuming today is not what it was years ago. We didn’t evolve to be eating this stuff.

    Anyway, glad you guys are weighing in with your opinion. I agree with your assessment that paying more attention to the food choices we make is what matters. Being forced to pay attention to alternative grains has opened a parallel universe of abundance for me. Teff, quinoa, timtana, Montina, mesquite, amaranth, high-protein GF oats — the list goes on and on. Many of these choices are higher in nutritional value than wheat, so it’s all good. It’s easy to thrive on a gluten-free diet. You just need to know what you’re doing and skip the processed crap. Stick to “real” food.

    Thanks for helping to increase awareness!
    Melissa

    Reply
  4. Jonathan Wiggins on

    Can you tell what I could eat to make my diet more gluten free? Which foods deliver more gluten than others, I eat a very restrictive fat free diet keeping my fats between 10 & 20 grams a day, I take a flax oil supplement and a fish oil supplement every day, I only allow a small amount of olive oil occasionally. No red meat, or pork. Boneless chicken breast once or twice a week. Yet, I still have fat around my belly, I am trying to eat less sugars and carbs but I need a more focused approach to my diet,. Do you have any recommendations?

    Reply
  5. Dr. Roy L. Gerber on

    This is a great topic to offer your audience. Yes, there is controversy around the subject of gluten and grains in general for a lot of reasons. I won’t go into the politics and economic ramifications around it, but you can find a lot of science implicating gluten in declining health, including dysfunctional immune conditions and other problems. Check out the bibliography in the article at http://members.cox.net/harold.kraus/gluten/anno_symptoms_files/diabetes.htm for a quick start. The subject of gluten and diabetes is no joke, and you are not exempt just because you do not have celiac disease. There is also controversy around the impact of gluten on insulin spiking and the intentional use of insulin spiking for post-workout recovery.

    Here is what I believe everyone should consider. There is a growing and credible body of evidence linking insulin spiking and diabetes, “Metabolic Syndrome,” where the body develops a resistance to its own insulin and, and in recent years, Alzheimer’s, which is now considered to be “Type 3 diabetes.” Insulin spiking, even if it might promote building lean mass, is an insult to your system and should be avoided. One should work on minimizing spikes in circulating carbohydrate that cause excessive insulin spiking. “Carbing up” is a key example in sports. The research we follow indicates that taking a large carbohydrate load, while probably not a good idea for anyone for the reasons suggested above, is really a poor choice for well over half of all humans whose metabolism naturally favors fat utilization. Ever notice some people perform poorly after this while some excel? Metabolic typing can be used to more clearly understand how one’s system will process carbohydrates and tolerate or succumb to these insults.

    The bottom line is that gluten promotes insulin spiking which carries many long-term risks you must accept along with the claimed or even perceived short-term benefits some, but not all, athletes realize. One size does not fit all with nutrition, so what appears to work for one person may be biologically incompatible with your system, so buyer beware, and always listen to your body.

    Reply
  6. Larry Uelk on

    Good article. I see the same thing in the animal food business. Rumors get started and people who don’t want to take the time or don’t know where to go to get the truth accept the rumors as valid. If you drank “organic” milk or milk from cows with BST, there is absolutely no difference in the milk. (http://www.feedstuffsfoodlink.com/ME2/dirsect.asp?sid=6511F11E606A4EF285B44421CA9E7310&nm=Bovine+somatotropin). However, “organic” is more “chic” and people believe they are getting a better product.

    Reply
  7. Brian Bigelow on

    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.
    Read Millward, C., et al 2004 gluten and casein free diets for autisic spectrum disorder. Cochrane database Syst Rev 2:cd003498. Review
    also Grosjean and Tsia 2007 J Psychiatry Neuroscience 32 (2);200-4
    Have you done an extensive literature search on the subject of gluten free diets before making your statement? Why do you think Garmin cycling team doctor prohibits wheat during the TDF race. There is a lot of science behind it. Also the food coma you get when you eat a plate of wheat based pasta.

    Reply
  8. Patricia Rosen on

    Bravo! as a physician athlete with lots of clients who want to eat gluten free…. the bottom line is it is a heavy artificial protein… so if it upsets your stomach don’t eat it. but it isn’t going to offer any magical benefits to avoid it.

    Decreasing protein in your diet in general will have an anti-inflammatory benefit. (See China Study by T Colin Campbell) when comparing the Western diet to the rest of the world and the increase in certain illness. However we have an excess of proteins in our diet.

    If we can get back to a balanced diet that is plant based, the gluten issue is only a minor component of that. Fads are just that and not necessarily based on good science or an understanding of the issue.

    P.B.Rosen, MD, MPH

    Reply
  9. Rich Hereau on

    First, many notice improvements in well-being when making any change in training, nurition, or lifestyle. This may be due to the placebo effect; if you expect improvement, you will find it. Even a placebo effect can be beneficial, as long as it doesn’t mask a medical problem.

    Second, after ruling out the placebo effect, it may be that an individual has a mild allergy or some other reaction to gluten. Changing to a gluten-free diet for a brief time, such as your 4-week proposal, might uncover said allergy/reaction. This would certainly be beneficial and indicate a need to see a medical specialist to investigate the cause further.

    Reply
  10. Greg Collins on

    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.

    You must be more specific…Gluten-Free is not grain free. People on a gluten free
    diet eat other grains, rice for example, Quinoa, Millet, Buckwheat, Teff

    Reply
  11. ScottP on

    Good article, Jim. I’m amazed at those who tout the benefits of their gluten-free diets, who medically have no reason to avoid gluten. The point made about an increase in fruits and vegetables to their diet in the absence of grains possibly being a factor in their healhy turnaround is well-taken.

    Reply
  12. Halsey B on

    i have to believe that common sense prevails here and wonder how much of this is simply the new “fad” diet. Your point is right on here in your acknowledgement, “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.”
    With that being said, gluten free without any REAL scientific evidence is no better than simply being conscious of what you consume daily. Great food for thought though, pardon the pun….

    Reply
  13. dale mcvay on

    I find that a fairly “starch free” diet is what most people without any medical issues are switching to. Many athletes seem to fall prey to the idea that carbohydrate is only bread, pasta, pasta and more pasta!! Forgetting, as you mentioned, the advantage of getting carbohydrate from fruits and vegetables.

    Reply
  14. Timothy J. Best MD, MSc, FRCSC on

    Hi – great article. I have nothing to contribute on the gluten debate, as I agree that to date there has not been good published data to indicate superiority of a gluten-free diet in non-intolerant individuals – but I do have a note of caution to inject. Independent of sporting performance, advocating an “omnivorous lifestyle” bears some caution. There are numerous studies indicating that a vegetarian lifestyle is healthier than regularly including meat in one’s diet. For example, the preponderance of evidence indicates that a diet regularly featuring meat, even after controlling for body weight, leads to higher incidences of diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer (for a recent review see Craig WJ Nutritional concerns and health effects ofvegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract 2010;25:613-20).
    I’ve noticed over the years that CTS has steered clear of this debate, but as dispensers of nutritional advice, I question the prudence this approach. I believe that there is an ethical responsibility of anyone who prescribes such advice to as a minimum make there clients aware that there is considerable concern in the medical community of persuing an omniverous lifestyle.
    Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  15. Ryan Kohler on

    Brian,
    Thank you for sharing those links. Autism, as the research suggests, would be a condition that seems to benefit from a GF approach. There will always be new information appearing in the literature to promote GF for certain medical conditions. However, for conditions that are not yet researched or those that do not show support for the GF approach, there is not yet adequate information to recommend GF across the board.

    I would be interested to see research to support the food coma after eating a wheat based pasta meal as well.
    Thank you,
    Ryan

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)