The Gluten-Free Edge: Why All Athletes Should Consider Cutting Gluten

gluten-free diet bookRight. That speaks to my next question, which is what is it about foods that contain gluten that slows recovery in athletes?

There are a couple of things you can point to. One of the biggest one is inflammation, and that was one of the big motivating factors behind the Garmin pro cycling team voluntarily adopting a gluten-free diet with the intent of reducing inflammation. And then that was helping promote faster recovery.
You also have problems with impaired digestion, and it can manifest in a variety of other ways. But inflammation, time of recovery, and digestion are some of the biggest issues that we find.

You note in the book that gluten–and, in fact, wheat itself–have changed over years of cultivation, and that that’s why gluten intolerance is so much more prevalent than in the past. Can you explain that a little?

Sure. The ancient varieties of wheat–einkorn and emmer–were a simpler variety of wheat. They had a reduced number of chromosomes; they weren’t as complicated as the wheat that we eat today. The wheat that we eat today, the modern bread wheat, has three genomes: The A, the B, and the D. Whereas the ancient varieties only had A or A plus B. And it turns out that the most toxic forms of gluten come from that D genome that we find in modern wheat.

Modern wheat has been cultivated for a variety of desirable characteristics, like increased crop yield, desirable baking characteristics, et cetera–but what has come along with that is a form of gluten that’s more prevalent and more toxic. That’s one suspected reason why we’re seeing increased rates of things like Celiac disease today, compared to 50 years ago.

I feel like that’s a question that gets asked a lot, “Why are Celiac and other forms of gluten intolerance blowing up right now?”, so I really appreciated that explanation in the book. So thanks! 

No problem.

There’s also an emphasis in the book on eating whole foods, which seems to be a consensus among just about every doctor and nutritionist, ever, whether they recommend gluten-free eating or not. What is it about processed foods that hinder athletic performance?

Well, it’s a little complicated because certain processed foods are used by athletes quite successfully. One really good example would be the energy gels. You can argue that’s a highly-processed food–but it works really well for gluten-free athletes.

But in general, when you think about the gluten-free landscape, what has happened in recent years is there’s been such an explosion of products. Once upon a time, if you wanted to eat gluten-free, you pretty much had to make everything yourself from scratch. But now, if you want to go to the super-market, and go to the speciality aisle and buy the gluten-free version of junk food, you can do that. So that’s where the slippery slope comes in for athletes.

You want to be putting high-octane fuel into your body to support your athletic performance. You don’t want a lot of empty calories, you don’t want excess sugars, you don’t want unhealthy fats–and those are some of the things that you’re going to start to find in the refined, processed foods.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this. We had a sort of controversial piece on our site about Dr. William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, who calls wheat a “poison.” Have you read any of his work, and what do you think about it?

I have read his work, and, in fact, I reviewed his book on my blog, No Gluten, No Problem. And I’m one of the few reviewers, from what I can tell, that has publicly voiced a negative opinion of the book.

From my perspective, he over-generalizes, proclaiming universal truths which are actually more individual and nuanced. And some of his claims are tenuous. For example, my review focuses on instances in which the claims he makes in the book and the scientific studies he cites to support those claims don’t agree. Overall, however, our respective books are targeted at very different populations. And while I don’t agree with everything in his book, we do come down on the same side of the aisle with some aspects, like emphasizing a nutrient-rich, whole-foods diet, and avoiding a lot of the overly-processed refined starches.

You have some recipes in the book, which is really helpful–can you give our readers a hint about what kinds of foods you recommend?

In general, every athlete has to make a decision for themselves about how they like to balance carbohydrates, protein, and fat, so we tried to give recipes that have a pretty good balance of that. You’ll find things that are good for travel, like a gluten-free version of GORP. You’ll find recipes like chicken tikka masala or Power Pizza, that are going to be good for before a big race or a big game. And then you’ll find other recipes that’ll give you a nice balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Yeah, the quinoa, sweet potato veggie burger is the one that got me ready for my long run this weekend. Is there anything else our readers should know about this book or your research?

The thing I would emphasize is that the book is really based on two complimentary pieces of the puzzle. One is all the science. We write it in a very familiar voice, but you can turn to the back of the book and see all the peer-reviewed scientific studies that support everything we’re saying. But we also give a lot of personal faces to the science with the profiles of athletes. There are about four dozen athletes that we profiled in the book, and a lot of them are very high-level performers. They’re Olympians, there’s professionals in their sports, they’re world champions, they’re Ironman champions.

But then there are also some recreational athletes, like your day-to-day runner or cyclist. And they all have really compelling, empowering stories, and I think are really great examples for all of us.

Want more from Peter Bronski and Melissa McLean Jory? You can check out Peter’s website, his blog, or follow him on Twitter, and find Melissa at Gluten Free For Good.

Images:  .shock via Shutterstock, and The Experiment.

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    • ML

      I love the comment that by now almost everyone should know someone who is gluten intolerant – it’s amazing how many people who previously thought they were lactose intolerant or whose stomachs could barely tolerate anything, discovered it was gluten that was making them sick! I recently came across a reference to an article about the gluten -free diet on Natural Standard’s website. Apparently, there has been a study that demonstrated people on the gluten-free diet experienced less symptoms of autism than those who were not on the diet. While more research needs to be performed in this area, it was interesting to learn that in the study, some parents who were stricter in maintaining their children’s diet, noticed an improvement in behavioral and autism symptoms. Thought I would share!