Is Gluten Bad for Athletes?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding gluten and for good reasons. Some studies have been made but no major one involving athletes and gluten consumption. So, it is hard to say for sure whether gluten affects an athlete’s performance. Well, one can easily determine that celiac disease or mere gluten intolerance may trigger symptoms that interfere with an athlete’s performance. But what about an athlete with good health, proper nutrition, and great technique? Does gluten stop this particular athlete from being even more efficient? Can there be an answer without mentioning a compelling study?

In order to provide an answer to the question Is gluten bad for athletes?, we need to know what gluten is and what is does to the body.

Understanding Gluten
Gluten is a protein compound (made up of gliadin and glutenin) found in most grains, such as wheat, spelt, rye, barley, flour. Bread, pasta, cereals, cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, biscuits, sauces, dressings, gravies (soy sauce, in particular) also contain gluten, unless specifically labeled as being gluten-free. One must also consider the fact that gluten can be found in all kinds of processed foods.

Now, that you know what gluten is, it’s time to find out what it does. The name gluten comes from its glue-like properties. When you mix wheat flour with water, the proteins in gluten give it a stringy consistency. It also provides an elastic, chewy texture and good taste.

You’ve probably heard of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity or intolerance. The symptoms for a person suffering from the conditions mentioned above include bloating, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea, pain in the bones and joints. Gluten consumption has also been linked to brain disorders. When confronted with a neurological illness, gluten may cause or exacerbate the symptoms of that particular condition.

However, a gluten-free diet can also lead to nutritional deficiencies as most gluten-free foods become stripped of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Thus, the athlete will be unable to refuel the body adequately.

Gluten and Athletes running wild
Having established what gluten is and how it affects the body of a healthy and a not so healthy individual, we will focus on the effect it has on athletes.
What we want to do is determine whether gluten can hinder an athlete’s performance.

Some athletes often present the following gastrointestinal symptoms:
– gastroesophageal reflux
– vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain
– digestive bleeding
Since the gastrointestinal discomfort many athletes feel resembles the symptoms of a gluten intolerance, there’s the idea that a gluten-free diet may relieve the symptoms.

However, the aforementioned discomfort may be the cause of an overactive sympathetic nervous system, massive intestinal dehydration or intestinal constricted vessels.
A gluten-free diet is beneficial in the case of athletes experiencing a gluten sensitivity even when they are resting. If an athlete develops the symptoms associated with gluten intolerance only while competing, then these symptoms do not usually go away when gluten is removed from their diet so the overall performance remains the same.

There is no clear evidence to support that a gluten-free diet improves an athletes’ performance or vice versa. The exception is when that particular athlete is suffering from celiac disease, in which case the performance will be greatly improved.

But What about the Answer?
So, is gluten bad for athletes? There is no way the question can be answered with a simple yes or no. Why? Because everybody is different. One might conduct a study on the issue, publish the results and the next morning an athlete not included in the study will stop the madness and say he ate gluten and had no problems winning a race. You cannot study everyone and cannot determine what is right or wrong because, let’s face it, that’s impossible. There are too many variables to consider.

The studies that have been conducted so far focus on the short-term effects of a gluten-free diet on healthy athletes and the results show that a gluten-free diet does not improve an athlete’s endurance and technique.

Considering most people may develop gluten intolerance due to the fact that gluten is present in a lot of foods nowadays, adopting a gluten-free diet may not be that bad. A gluten-free diet may be time and money consuming. Learning how to make good choices and carefully reading labels is a must. However, if your body doesn’t need it, you will probably stress it out by trying to find the proper nutrition while on this diet.

In what athletes are concerned, great nutrition and adequate training do the trick. Athletes do not need to go gluten-free unless they really suspect a gluten intolerance. The bottom line is that athletes need good sources of carbohydrates to fuel their bodies. Eliminating gluten from their diets means cutting out most grains, which help them get the nutrients needed to spike their performances. With a well-designed nutritional plan, these deficiencies can be surpassed and then it becomes a matter of eating healthier altogether by increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.


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