Drew Brees does it. So does the entire Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team. Novak Djokovic went as far as crediting his U.S. Open tennis win to going gluten-free. Gluten has captured the attention of the sports world and many are getting rid of it to gain an athletic advantage.
And the professionals are not the only ones who have taken notice. Whether they are trying to gain an edge on their CrossFit®, hoping to shave minutes off their half marathon performance or simply looking to trim some excess weight, active people are pushing gluten-free diets to new heights of popularity. But what is gluten, and more importantly, should we really do away with it?
Getting to Know Gluten
Gluten is naturally present in many grains, but primarily wheat. It forms when two proteins within a grain--glutenin and gliadin--are combined (McGee 2004). From a nutritional perspective, these plant proteins are not essential to humans. We cannot see, taste or smell gluten, and we can live perfectly healthy lives without ever consuming it.
Cooking and baking, however, make gluten a practical necessity. When a gluten-containing grain is milled into flour, it becomes packed with culinary potential. When gluten-containing flour is moistened, glutenin and gliadin form a network that traps gases like carbon dioxide and steam, allowing dough to rise and produce a light structure (Herbst & Herbst 2009). From a culinary standpoint, gluten is essential to achieving strong crusty bread, tall cakes and muffins, and pillowy pasta.
Gluten’s Behavior in Our Bodies
The average healthy person has no problem digesting and absorbing the proteins that form gluten. Enzymes digest or break down the proteins into amino acids, which are absorbed or drawn into the body’s circulatory system through the small intestine. Villi, hairlike projections on the surface of the intestine, capture the amino acids along with other nutrients and pass them through the intestinal wall (Smolin & Grosvenor 1997).
The problem arises if people have an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, or if they have a less-aggressive but equally significant gluten sensitivity. Their immune systems form antibodies against the gliadin protein that attack the cells of the intestinal wall. This makes the intestines unable to draw nutrients into the circulatory system, leading to malnourishment that can trigger all sorts of health complications such as fatigue, osteoporosis and certain cancers (Sapone et al 2012).
Gluten and Athletic Performance
Athletes who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (both must be diagnosed by a doctor) must get gluten out of their diets. This dietary change allows the immune system to rest and properly absorb nutrients, resulting in improved performance and muscle repair (Sapone et al 2011).
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.
Growing numbers of people feel symptomatic after consuming gluten, and more research is looking into the health effects of new agricultural practices that produce wheat with increased protein content. But as of now, nothing conclusive has surfaced (Sapone et al 2012).
Ultimately, going gluten-free does not guarantee better athletic performance. But it is a good way to fine-tune your diet by focusing on high-quality carbohydrates such as fresh vegetables, fruit, beans 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. And that is definitely an improvement.