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Gluten Verboten: Great Athletes Go Against the Grain

Krista Fredrick

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Krista Fredrick | January 3, 2013 | 0

Gluten-freeGluten-free is chic, sure.

But just because it’s become a trendy diet for people looking to lose weight doesn’t mean that gluten intolerance isn’t a real issue for many.

Gluten is a protein that’s naturally found in barley, rye and wheat. Gluten enhances flour’s ability to rise in baked goods. It’s the stuff that gives bread that chewy texture we all love. It’s harmless for almost everyone, but more and more people are becoming convinced that it can have a significant effect on physical performance—especially for athletes.

More and more, sports physicians and athletes are starting to preach the importance of a gluten-free diet before a physical performance or athletic competition.

So why is gluten suddenly a hot topic among world-class athletes?

Gluten hit the sports headlines a few months ago when top tennis player Novak Djokovic revealed that his meteoric ascendancy in the world rankings was due to his gluten-free diet. Previous to his new diet, his superb physical conditioning often inexplicably let him down during championship matches. A perceptive sports nutritionist had him tested for food intolerance and found that he was allergic to gluten.

After eschewing chewy pastas and pastries, Djokovic took down the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Now other athletes are following his lead and are seeing good results. The latest is Andy Murray, the gold medalist in singles tennis at the Summer Olympics. He says he has more energy, a faster recovery time and can even wake up earlier. He says he misses munching on bread at restaurants while waiting on his meal to arrive, but the sacrifice is well worth the improvements he’s seen and felt since making the change.

Athletes depend on carbohydrates to fuel their performance. Carbs keep energy up, regulate blood sugar and help with recovery. And carbs usually come from gluten-containing grains. So eliminating gluten from an athlete’s diet can be tricky. It usually means turning more to gluten-free carbohydrates such as corn, rice, quinoa, tofu and beans.

Still, for the estimated 1 percent of the population that has celiac disease (a condition that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients), losing the gluten means improved digestion. Nutrients such as B-vitamins, iron and fiber become more usable, and performance goes up.

There is anecdotal evidence that hints at improved performance in athletes who avoid gluten even if they haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or any other food allergy. The scientific community hasn’t reached a consensus on this, but there’s no arguing with results.

But are these anecdotal results just a coincidence? Giving up gluten means keeping an eye on everything you eat, and often this awareness results in better choices overall no matter what. Another thing to think about: High-protein, low-glycemic foods often happen to be gluten-free, so if you’re eating more of them, your body is processing energy more efficiently and burning fat stores. The end result is that you may feel better, but gluten (or the lack thereof) may very well not have anything to do with it.

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