Is gluten-free the way to be? A growing number of athletes think so. Olympic runner Amy Yoder Begely and professional triathlete Desiree Ficker are just two of the elites who have publicly bid adieu to gluten, a protein found in grains including wheat, spelt, kamut, barley and rye.
“The improvements in my health and performance have been drastic,” says Ficker. “Before, I was regularly experiencing diarrhea and severe stomach pain after hard runs.” Now that she turns to rice bread and sweet potatoes to fuel her training, the symptoms have stopped and her racing has improved.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet for You?
Stories like Ficker’s have many runners wondering if they, too, should steer of gluten to get an edge on the competition. The growing fascination with a wheat-free lifestyle has caused the gluten-free products to explode into a $6 billion dollar industry in the U.S.
But when runners hear Ficker’s tale of transformation, one detail is often overlooked. The triathlete was not healthy before she stopped eating gluten—Ficker was suffering from celiac disease. This autoimmune disorder causes the body to treat gluten as an enemy invader, inflicting damage on the intestines when it’s consumed. Celiac can cause fatigue, brain fog, gas, diarrhea, constipation, migraines, joint and muscle pain, skin rashes, sinus infections and nutrient malabsorption —all of which can sour a P.R. pursuit.
So how likely is it that you share her diagnosis? Recent studies suggest that about 1 in 130 Americans suffer from celiac. While the prevalence of this disease is currently on the rise, it’s still about as common as schizophrenia— which is to say not very.
Even if you don’t have a wheat allergy, you may still have ‘non-celiac gluten intolerance’ or gluten sensitivity. In this case, you experience similar (but less severe) symptoms. Studies suggest that a much higher number, possibly 1 in 10 individuals, could experience sensitivity.
Testing the Waters. . .
If you think you might be a member of the 10 percent, make an appointment with your doctor before heading to the health food store. Celiac can be determined by a single blood test.
If your results come back negative, it’s still possible you are intolerant. Your doctor will likely recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for a week or so to see if you notice any positive effects. To adopt a completely gluten-free lifestyle, Sumbal recommends seeking the guidance of a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.
No Intolerance, Little Benefit
For runners with neither a wheat allergy nor intolerance, there is nothing inherently healthy about launching into a gluten-free diet, says Marni Sumbal, a registered dietician and triathlete based in Florida. She explains, “A poorly planned gluten-free diet can lack the dietary variety necessary to meet the nutrient needs of active females.”
A well-planned gluten-free diet, on the other hand, can be balanced and nutritious. Sumbal recommends choosing “whole food options, such as fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts and gluten-free whole grains.” Quinoa, millet, teff, brown rice, buckwheat and amaranth do not contain gluten and are healthy choices for any athlete— gluten-free or not. ■