The Gluten-free debate


Is going gluten-free all it’s cracked up to be?

For those who suffer from celiac disease, the short answer is yes.

For those of you who do not have celiac disease but still suffer from gastrointestinal discomfort after eating gluten-containing foods, you may have what is called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” In such a case as this one would surely benefit from following a gluten-free diet. For this person, it is best to cut out gluten in order for their body to process foods properly and in turn for their body to absorb vitamins, minerals and proper nutrition from foods it can digest easily, without added stress.

What about those who are not gluten-intolerant or sensitive?

Many people these days are falling into the trend of removing gluten from their diets in order to spur on weight loss. According to the independent research firm Mintel, just under 30% of Americans specifically choose gluten-free foods as a way to help them lose weight.

However, we are finding that cutting out gluten does not cause weight loss, but rather, choosing to follow the recommended diet for all people (gluten intolerant or not) is what spurs on weight loss. Celiac disease is an auto immune disorder that requires people to adapt to a diet consisting mostly of naturally gluten-free whole foods including fruits, vegetables, dried beans, nuts, seeds, dairy, fish, and lean meats. However, this diet recommendation is the same for people with or without the gluten sensitivity or celiac.

Therefore, following a “gluten free” diet is not what is causing others to lose weight, but rather keeping in mind that gluten is found in many processed, trans-fatty, and calorie-rich foods may remind people to choose whole foods that are naturally healthier.

On another hand, the “gluten-free” diet is giving teens and other young adults illegitimate reasons to fuel eating disorders. Teens are choosing to skip out on meals that contain gluten, all the while thinking it will help them lose weight, and cut out countless foods from their diet altogether for the same reason. It is here that we remind ourselves that there is no magic food, enzyme or pill that will help you lose weight.

Gluten and athletic performance

Some of the most common symptoms of a gluten intolerance are unexplained aches, fatigue, headaches, joint or muscle pain, bloating, inflammation or other digestion problems. Therefore, many people claim that consuming gluten will hurt their athletic performance, especially since inflammation can lead to injury.

Some athletes are concerned that following a gluten-free diet will inhibit their carbohydrate/energy intake. As an althlete, your diet typically relies on adequate carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates before, during and after training or competition are essential in maintaining energy levels, regulated blood sugar, prevention of fatigue, and quick recovery after an event. However, some athletes believe that following a gluten-free diet has performance enhancing advantages. This is because most athletes choose sugary, refined or processed carbohydrates as a quick recovery food, most of which contain gluten. When these foods are eliminated from one’s diet, the benefits outweigh the risks. The best athletic performance derives from a diet that consists of low sugars (sugars that are not refined or are naturally found in whole foods), high fiber, and sufficient in lean protein. Carbohydrates are an important source of energy, especially during exercise. Depending on the sport and energy output, the recommended intake of carbohydrates can be up to 15 g/kg of body weight yet. Breads, pasta, cereal, rice, and fruit are the common food products that an athlete is likely to choose. Typical healthy carbohydrate substitutions within a gluten-free diet include all varieties of rice, organic corn, flax seeds, quinoa, tapioca, potato, amaranth, tofu, nuts, and beans. If you feel like you have a sensitivity to gluten and experience the symptoms listed, try not eating gluten for 10 days and then re-introduce it to your diet to see how your body responds. If you feel like gluten is affecting your athletic performance, following a gluten-free, whole food diet could be best for you.

Proceed with caution

One size does not fit all. The nutrition field warns that a poorly planned switch to gluten-free can backfire, leading to an inadequate intake of complex carbs, vitamins, and minerals. And while there are lots of healthy gluten-free packaged foods, “not all are nutritional bell ringers.” Some people associate ‘gluten-free’ with ‘healthier,’ but an athlete who isn’t careful could end up eating a lot of refined carbs and added fats, leading to weight gain.

Tim Brooks