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Gluten Free and the Athlete

Researched and written by the team at The Student-Athlete Resource.

There has been some debate in the medical and sports communities about the effect gluten may have on an athlete and about why eliminating it may create a positive effect on athletic performance.

“Nutritionally speaking, gluten is useless,” according to Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. “It doesn’t do anything for us,” he says. “For the [first] 99.9 percent of our human evolution, our species has been gluten-free.”

As reported by the Washington Post, Fasano continued noting that the protein entered our diets only about 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began domesticating crops. As a result, the human body does not contain the necessary digestive enzymes to break it down. Eating a lot of gluten is akin to “asking your GI system to do an impossible mission: to digest something that’s not digestible,” says Fasano.

Despite this, most people can handle eating gluten without any issues. For those people, the body and its immune systems should process the undigested gluten out of the body.  However, the interesting caveat to going gluten free for someone that does not have celiac disease is that eliminating gluten from your diet frees up the body from this exercise, “allowing it to focus on carrying oxygen to the muscles. This, some theorize, is why eliminating gluten may boost athletic performance.”

However, as reported by the New York Times, a study conducted in 2015 by the University of Tasmania in Australia and the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific in British Columbia found that there was neither a beneficial nor negative effect of a gluten-free diet for athletes who had no clinical necessity for the diet.  The article points out that this study was small and short-term, with athletes following a set diet for only one-week.

Should athletes decide to go gluten-free, Delicious Living suggests four issues to watch for: getting adequate energy and carbohydrates (gluten free does not mean carb free); potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies; not getting enough fiber; and avoiding inflammation.

Resources/Cited:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/many-athletes-tout-the-gluten-free-way-whats-the-science-behind-the-claim/2013/10/14/cc0b601c-d42f-11e2-b05f-3ea3f0e7bb5a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cd5b4a80a650

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  • Jeannette Shields: This was great! My favorite sentence was "..you are the one who puts yourself on that scale..." You are so right and I can take myself OFF too! By that, I mean, I think a lot of my negative self talk probably weighs more than I do!!!!! View Post
  • Nancy Short: I am gluten free dairy free and yeast free. Gluten free breads seem to all have yeast extract in them. View Post