When An Athlete Gives Up Gluten

Search for studies on how gluten affects athletic performance, and you’ll probably come up empty-handed. Researchers just haven’t paid much attention to how gluten influences exercise. But in the real world, outside of the controlled environment of the laboratory, athletes are finding that going gluten-free seems to give them an extra edge.

Mixed martial artists, runners, football players, cyclists, swimmers: It seems like a whole host of athletes are giving gluten-free diets a try and liking the results.

In Green Bay, Wisc., James Starks, a running back for the Green Bay Packers, reports that after switching to a gluten-free diet in the offseason, he is coming into this season fully healthy for the first time in years. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he gave up gluten in an effort to heal a nagging hamstring injury. And it seems to have worked.

In Chicago, Kyle Korver of the Chicago Bulls, who started eating gluten-free in 2010, told Men’s Journal: “My joints feel much better and my post-game recovery is as good as it has ever been.”

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Cycling Without Gluten

Many commentators still insist that giving up gluten — a protein in wheat, barley and rye — represents more of a fad than a desirable way to protect health. But medical researchers now suspect that an alarming number of people are either gluten-sensitive or suffer full-blown celiac, serious autoimmune difficulties linked to gluten. For someone with celiac, eating gluten can destroy the digestive tract, destroy the mind (as it threatened to destroy mine), and cause nerve damage, skin rashes, joint pain, mouth sores and long list of other disturbing problems. Experts estimate that up to 30 or 40 percent of Americans may suffer some degree of gluten sensitivity.

Many athletes aren’t waiting for definitive answers on whether they are gluten-sensitive; they are going on gluten-free diets and enjoying the results. For instance, the Garmin-Cervélo bicycle racing team has put its entire group of cyclists on a mostly gluten-free diet during the race season. As it report on its website: “The advantage of a gluten-free diet is that it is anti-inflammatory, meaning the diet helps the body’s natural mending process. And that’s very important to elite athletes like the Garmin-Cervélo riders who spend days building their fitness by tearing themselves down through racing and training and then adapting to those workloads with rest and nutrition.”

While these cyclists were accustomed to carbo-loading on wheat products to get ready for races, the benefits of giving up gluten has led some of the riders to confess that they’ll never eat pasta again. Kevin Reichlin, the team physician, reports that: “I believe that the high amounts of wheat products that are normally consumed by bike racers at the Tour (de France) have an inflammatory effect in the body. I believe that most people have either an overt (reaction) to wheat products… or at least a sub-symptomatic inflammatory response to wheat products.”

Lagging Research

Medical research, as I noted before, still has a long way to go to catch up to the many benefits of going gluten-free. And it has only recently begun to recognize the widespread nature of our problems with gluten. But a case study of a volleyball player suffering from celiac noted that “Certified athletic trainers and other health care professionals should be aware that the occurrence of celiac disease is higher than once thought.”1

A common benefit of going on a gluten-free diet is the fact that you also give up many processed foods. Cookies, candy bars, cakes and breads almost always contain wheat and gluten. Just cutting back on those low-nutrient foods, even without the benefits of giving up gluten, can provide a health boost. But be sure and don’t overindulge in gluten-free alternative processed foods. Personally, I generally stay away from all grains and don’t usually enjoy gluten-free baked goods.

If you are an athlete looking for gluten-free alternatives to gluten-rich foods, a quick chart that can help is located at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1323299/table/i1062-6050-40-4-360-t02/

Give up gluten and you may find yourself feeling as pumped as Dennis Hallman, a mixed marshal artist nicknamed “Superman,” who recently told USA Today, “I can train and not be completely worn out. I can train full-time now. Prior to that, I could never run more than 15 minutes on a treadmill, ever; not in my life. Now I can do full workouts and keep my heart rate up for a long period of time and have quick recovery.”

1 J Athl Train. 2005 Oct-Dec; 40(4): 360 — 364


Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.