Does Cutting Gluten Improve Athletic Performance?

Gluten-free diets shouldn’t work. Cutting out bread isn’t the magic pill to weight loss or fitness gains. Recent research proves it doesn’t make us faster, stronger or skinnier. But athletes who forgo gluten, like me, will say that ending their love affair with bagels miraculously cured lifelong health problems.

They say that after cutting out gluten, they lost weight. They recover faster and have never felt better.

Novak Djokovic claims his gluten-free diet was his secret weapon in his rise to the number one ranked tennis player in the world. New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira credits a gluten-free regimen for the rejuvenation of his career in his last few seasons. After ditching gluten, 301-pound NFL lineman Justin Pugh, says he has more energy than he did in college. Olympians Ryan Hall and Amy Yoder Begley and the entire Garmin professional cycling team are riding the gluten-free bandwagon.

The trend isn’t just reserved for the pros. Gluten-free diets are gaining popularity, with U.S. sales of GF certified foods reaching $4.2 billion in 2012, a 28 percent increase over the 2008-2012 period, according to a report by the market research company Packaged Facts. The report states it’s generally believed that a gluten free diet is simply better for you.

While athletes claim to feel better and perform better on a gluten-free diet, some medical experts are skeptical that the diets help people other than sufferers of celiac disease. Peter H. R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University and author of Gluten Exposed: The Science Behind the Hype and How to Navigate to a Healthy, Symptom-Free Life, believes the trend may be a product of a placebo effect.

But can all these gluten-free enthusiasts be deluding themselves?

Yes and no. Gluten-free diets are indeed making people feel and perform better. Many athletes follow gluten-free diets to ease unappealing digestive symptoms during competition. Improved digestion leads to improved absorption of nutrients, which can translate into improved performance. Based on anecdotal evidence, it appears there is potential for improved performance in athletes eating a gluten-free diet, even if they are not diagnosed with an allergy or celiac disease.

Athletes who see tangible, measurable and significant changes in their GI tract after cutting gluten may actually have an intolerance. Gluten intolerances and celiac disease has gained recognition as a contributing factor to many health issues. Evidence suggests that as many as one in 10 people are gluten sensitive, or gluten intolerant. Autoimmune illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders and diabetes may be associated with gluten intolerance.

On the other hand, cutting out gluten may just make room for other, less processed foods like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. After a tough workout, it’s easy to reach for a high glycemic, refined or processed carbohydrates as a quick recovery food, most of which choices contain gluten. When these foods are eliminated, you’re left with foods that are low on the glycemic index, high in fiber, nutritionally dense and full of lean protein.

Some scientists say that while gluten-eschewing athletes may improve their performance, it doesn’t have anything to do with gluten. Instead, the true culprit may be fermentable sugar components, which are poorly absorbed in the gut—and they just happen to be found in the same foods that contain gluten: wheat, rye and barley.

I’m not telling you to go gluten-free. For some, the drastic change in diet offers nothing but aggravating inconveniences. If that’s you, consider yourself lucky. As a cake eating, beer-loving athlete, the restrictions on my gluten-free diet often seem like shackles. But for myself and the thousands of other athletes who swear by GF, the problems associated with a glutenous diet are more intense than the pastry craving. Fortunately for us, there are more gluten-free options than ever, including pasta made from quinoa, energy bars made from fruit and nuts, and cakes made from almond flour. And there are the naturally gluten-free basics, too: I’ll eat a simple dinner, such as a protein, rice, and vegetables. Before a race, I’ll have oats and peanut butter (or a gluten-free pastry).

Taking advantage of today’s gluten-free trend means you’ve got ample alternatives at your disposal. These days, you don’t even have to give up that post-workout beer.