Energeia Blog

Jul 16, 2012 4:27pm

What do Zooey Deschanel, Jenny McCarthy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Victoria Beckham all have in common? They have all gone gluten free. Drew Brees does it. So does the entire Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team. Novak Djokovic credited his U.S. Open tennis win to his gluten-free diet. And now that gluten has captured the attention of the sports world, many are getting rid of it to gain an athletic advantage.

But what is gluten, and more importantly, should we really be eliminating it from our diets?

The average healthy person has no problem digesting and absorbing the proteins that form gluten. These proteins are naturally present in many grains, including wheat. We cannot see, taste or smell gluten, and we can live perfectly healthy lives without ever consuming it. In fact, many nutrient rich foods are naturally gluten free including, fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, lean proteins, dairy, eggs and some whole grains including brown rice and quinoa. Since the proteins that form gluten allow for strong crusty breads and tall cakes and muffins, gluten is present in most baked, refined and processed carbohydrates. 

When people have an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, or if they have a gluten sensitivity, the intestines are unable to draw nutrients into the circulatory system, leading to malnourishment and a host of health complications such as fatigue, osteoporosis and certain cancers.

Gluten and Athletic Performance

Athletes who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must eliminate gluten from their diets. This dietary change allows the immune system to rest and properly absorb nutrients, resulting in improved performance and muscle repair.

On the other hand, healthy athletes with no gluten sensitivity draw no inherent advantage from going gluten-free so long as they maintain a high-quality diet that restricts the consumption of processed and refined carbohydrates. That is the key: Since gluten exists primarily in wheat and refined wheat is found in most low-nutrient processed food, eliminating gluten removes a lot of potential junk food from the diet. This dietary improvement--not the lack of gluten--is what makes athletes or anyone else feel and perform better.

Ultimately, there isn't any conclusive evidence that gluten-free enhances athletic performance. But it is a good way to focus your diet on high-quality, nutrient dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Because popular grains such as wheat and barley would be eliminated, your diet would be introduced to a new variety of nutrient-rich whole grains like protein-packed quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, brown and wild rice, corn and millet. 

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