In the last two years or so, it seems like everyone knows someone who has either discovered a gluten intolerance, or, for some reason or another, decided to at least try a gluten-free diet. And while it’s not right for everyone, authors Peter Bronski and Melissa McLean Jory, MNT, think it may hold a secret power for a lot of athletes (and regular folks who like to be active).
Their new book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life, isn’t heavy-handed or preachy, and it doesn’t claim that gluten-free works for everyone. Instead, it puts the trendy (and, for some, life-saving) dietary choice in a new light, highlighting the way that the human body reacts to gluten, and the changes that commercial wheat have undergone since the early days of cultivation.
The book also provides recipes, and, perhaps most interestingly, personal stories from athletes–including Bronski himself–who have seen their athletic performance reach new highs since adopting the diet. Here’s a conversation we had a few weeks ago on the subject.
First, can you explain your background and how you came to write this book?
There are two hands to my background that came together two write this book; one is the athletic background, and the other is the gluten-free background. My history is, as an athlete, when I was younger, I played a lot of competitive team sports. Soccer and lacrosse were two of the big ones for me. As I transitioned into my college years, outdoor adventure sports really became my focus and my passion. Mountaineering, rock-climbing, skiing, mountain biking–those types of activities.
From 2005 to 2007 though, I got really sick. That was a really big low point for me. I had a lot of bad symptoms and really diminished quality of life. The active mountain lifestyle that I’d been living was severely curtailed. But it was a doctor that pegged my problem with gluten (and Celiac disease) that resulted in a massive turn-around in my health.
Since then–and I’ve said this to a lot of people–within weeks of going on a strict gluten-free diet, I felt better that I had in years, maybe even a decade. It made such a remarkable difference for me. And since then, I’ve become a stronger athlete than I ever was before I got sick. Now I focus on ultra-marathon distance trail run races, and it’s kind of unfathomable. In just two weeks, I’m going to be running a 50-mile ultra with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. But when I was at my low point, it was hard for me to do a mile and a half on the pavement in my neighborhood.
That was one of the big motivations of this book: Hopefully, using my experience and my story to inspire others who either have Celiac disease, or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, or even athletes who are just curious about how a gluten-free diet might benefit their performance. I want to inspire them to reach their full potential, in part through the power of diet.
You mentioned that people with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as those who aren’t actually intolerant. Is a gluten-free lifestyle potentially right for all people, or just those 30 million Americans with a gluten intolerance?
Well, I think when you use the word “potential,” that’s true. There’s definitely the potential for anyone to benefit. In the book, I interview Dr. Allen Lim, who’s an exercise physiologist and who’s worked with a number of the Tour de France pro cycling teams. And he refers to the gluten-free diet as a kind of Pascal’s Wager, where you have something to gain and nothing to lose by trying it.
But a message that we return to a lot of times in the book, which is that it also comes down to an important component of human biology. We don’t say that everyone is going to benefit universally for this, or that everyone will benefit in the same way.
But is there a lot of evidence that suggests that they will? Absolutely. And that evidence becomes more convincing when you start looking specifically at athletes, because athletes are prone to certain factors like immune suppression, heightened sensitivity to foods, gut problems–that can benefit from a gluten-free diet.