Does Gluten Affect Athletic Performance?
The hype around following a gluten-free diet continues, even among athletes who are non-celiac or don’t have any gluten-sensitivity. There has been a popular belief that gluten-free diet helps enhance health and performance among athletes. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains including barley and rye. It can also be present in grain-based foods such as soya sauce and through cross-contamination such as oats.
Many athletes tend to eat higher amount of gluten-containing foods than the average population to be able to meet their higher energy and carbohydrate needs. For athletes who have gluten-related issues and have been diagnosed clinically, removing gluten from their diet has helped with improving their overall performance and well-being. Unfortunately, may athletes self-diagnose and start eliminating gluten from their diet without any medical investigations.
The most common belief for eliminating gluten is the reduction of gastrointestinal (GI) distress; however, many studies did not show any significant reduction of GI stress with gluten-free diet. Another popular reason is promotion of weight loss, which there is also little evidence supporting this belief.
The major concerns for eliminating gluten from diet is meeting adequate nutritional needs and making unnecessary food restrictions. Generally on one hand, switching to a gluten-free diet has shown to increase awareness of eating more healthy and balanced meals, including higher consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less processed foods. However, due to the growth of gluten-free products in the market, the number of unhealthy products has increased. This could mislead the consumer to purchase less nutritious and more processed foods, which could have negative effects on overall health and well-being. Gluten-free diet could also lead to a lower protein and fibre intake, but most athletes opt for meat and alternatives as well as milk and alternatives as a source of protein instead of grains. The advantage of the growing gluten-free in the market is the increase in some nutrient-rich starches including buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth, which has helped reduce possibility of athletes missing certain nutrients from their diet (including B vitamins and iron). Overall, to assess if following a gluten-free diet will meet an athlete’s macro and micronutrient needs, their diet and needs should be assessed individually. A general recommendation cannot be made.
Social media has lead gluten-free diet to become more and more popular, however, the positive and negative effects on performance, for athletes who are not gluten-sensitive, have yet to be shown. Concerns with avoiding gluten are meeting sufficient caloric needs, unnecessary food restrictions, or misinterpreting appropriate medical diagnosis. If athletes believe to have GI disorders or gluten intolerance, they should consider the underlying cause prior to restricting their diet. The current evidence is limited to show any health benefits or enhancement of performance with gluten-free diet for non-celiac or non-gluten-sensitive athletes.