Current news reports have turned gluten into public health enemy number one. You hear it about on popular nutrition blogs, see it blasted in magazines, and watch as grocery stores devote entire aisles to “gluten-free” products.
Recently, the Mayo Clinic released a study revealing that 1.6 million Americans are on a gluten-free diet who don’t need to be. Further research has shown there’s no need to eliminate gluten unless you are diagnosed with celiac disease.
So why are so many people embracing the trend? Is there a health benefit to going gluten-free? (See Can Eliminating Wheat From Your Diet Improve Your Performance?)
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). For people with celiac disease, ingesting gluten causes an autoimmune attack on the small intestine, which renders it unable to absorb nutrients and causes problems like inflammation, weight loss and severe stomach pain. (Learn What Gluten-Free Athletes Need to Know.)
A gluten-free diet can be extremely frustrating. Common foods such as bread, crackers, sweets, and some sauces and dressings are deemed off limits. Even foods naturally gluten-free are a no-go for celiac disease sufferers if the foods become contaminated with gluten during processing.
It’s tricky to self-diagnose celiac disease. The symptoms can be easily confused with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease or diverticulitis. Only a doctor can truly determine if you have celiac disease—by taking a biopsy or administering a blood test. (Read How Athletes with Celiac Disease Can Eat Healthy and Stay Gluten-Free.)
Should You Try a Gluten-Free Diet?
The media have made “gluten-free” the latest buzzword and diet trend. Adding fuel to the fire are celebrity and athlete endorsements for gluten-free products.
A common mistake people make is to automatically assume “gluten-free” means “healthy.” Gluten is what makes baked goods light and airy. In order to replicate this texture in a gluten-free product, food manufacturers use alternatives that are often nutritionally inferior to white flour, which is enriched with iron and B vitamins. In general, gluten-free packaged foods have added fat to make them taste better.
If you choose to embrace a gluten-free lifestyle, you must remove all wheat and a vast majority of carbohydrates from your diet. The reason some people lose weight and reportedly “feel better” after going gluten-free is because they’ve cut out refined carbohydrates (e.g., chips, crackers, cookies and white breads).
But you can do this without going gluten-free. Why make healthy eating hard on yourself? A gluten-free diet is an unnecessary commitment unless you have celiac disease.
A better alternative is to enjoy all the foods you love in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle. Focus on eating real, whole foods and balancing your meals correctly. That is the diet that will benefit your athletic performance—more than choosing gluten-free bread over whole-wheat bread.