|If you have been thinking about going gluten-free or just cutting back, check out this article for important triathlon specific information.|
Take a stroll down any high street grocery aisle and you’ll notice the term gluten-free on an ever-increasing number of products. Visit specialty grocery stores and you’ll see entire aisles dedicated to the products.
Gluten free is one of the biggest trends not only in sports nutrition, but in the health and fitness world in general. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the United States gluten-free market rose 28 percent from 2004 to 2011 and now tops out at more than $2.5 billion a year.
Dr. Alexander Shikhman, rheumatologist and founder of the Institute for Specialized Medicine and Gluten-Free Remedies, describes gluten as “a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, barley and rye.” It’s found in many processed foods, including pizza, bread, pasta, and most cereals, and in unlikely culprits like beer, vinegar, jams, and soy sauce. Gluten-free foods include potatoes, rice, beans, nuts, oats, popcorn, and quinoa.
Most people have no problem with gluten, but for some it can cause digestive problems. For a small number of people who have celiac disease, it can be life threatening.
Human digestive enzymes cannot completely digest gluten in the gastrointestinal tract,” explains Dr. Shikhman. “Consumption results in the formation of large protein fragments that typically are excreted along with other unusable parts of the food we eat. But in genetically susceptible individuals, these fragments launch an immunological chain reaction causing chronic inflammation and autoimmune responses.”
For those with celiac disease, the gluten protein contributes to an immune reaction in the digestive system, which can lead to permanent damage to the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to an inability of the intestine to absorb essential nutrients.
Lesley Paterson, a prominent IRONMAN 70.3 pro and two-time XTERRA world champion, went on to a gluten-free diet at the suggestion of her doctor. “I had a tolerance test done by my specialty doctor after complaining of digestive issues, bloating, and fatigue” she recalls. “My test came back positive and he recommended that I should give it a try.”
Though gluten intolerances or wheat allergies are different from having celiac disease, moving to a gluten-free diet may alleviate common symptoms such as cramps, diarrhea, and constipation.
“If people genetically predisposed to gluten intolerance do not ingest gluten, the illness will not manifest and their symptoms will subside,” says Dr. Shikhman. “They will likely have increased energy, more focus and less gastrointestinal problems.”
Paterson says gluten affects her in a complex way. “Basically it compromises my immune system by impacting the flora and fauna (microorganisms) in my gut. I get bloating, gas, nausea, and severe flu-like symptoms, plus plenty of fatigue.”
While many of the benefits of a gluten-free diet are anecdotal for those without digestive problems, there is no lack of willing proponents, as the multi-billion dollar industry will attest. According to Dr. Shikhman, the benefits are real. “For someone who does not have digestive problems the benefits are improvement of endurance, improvement of ‘mental performance’ and energy increase.”
Anecdotal or not, what is undisputed is that eliminating gluten from your diet—for example, in breads and processed foods —means less sugar and fat, and a move towards fresher foods.
Many believe that going gluten-free also means weight loss because of the lowered carbohydrates. But this is not a guaranteed result. Any ensuing weight-loss may simply be a by product of eating a healthier diet—fewer processed foods and more fruits and vegetables.
When it comes to weight loss, the opposite might even be the case. Gluten-free products, although lower in starch and carbohydrates, are also lower in fiber, which helps to make you feel full. As a result, people on a gluten-free diet might actually eat more. People may also think that, because they are eating healthier foods, they can consume more. Gluten-free products also tend to be lower in vitamins B and D, fiber, folic acid, iron and calcium. This is because, unlike regular wheat flour, gluten-free wheat substitutes are very often unfortified with necessary nutrients.
Going gluten-free helps different people in different ways. Paterson says it has made her feel free and clear. “I feel like my energy systems are functioning a lot better, that I am much less fatigued from training and I recover quicker. It’s been a gradual process though and has taken a year to really feel the top benefits,” she says.
For anyone thinking of going gluten-free, the first step is getting tested. While medical testing, such as by blood or biopsy, requires that there is gluten in the body’s innards, another possibility is simply to try it and see if it has any affect. Dr. Shikhman then recommends trying an elimination diet. “Eliminate gluten for at least two-three months and pay attention to how you feel; then reintroduce gluten to see if your symptoms come back. If they do, chances are you have a sensitivity or intolerance. Alternatively, you can have blood tests focused on genetic markers associated with gluten intolerance.”