It has been hip lately to go “gluten free.” Words like “gluten free or gluten sensitive” have been thrown around so much that it’s become vague and diluted like “organic” and “all natural.” Gluten intolerance, gluten sensitive, gluten resistant are words describe someone who has a myriad of problems after ingesting something containing gluten. Gluten free diets are gaining popularity with the assumption that it is a healthier way of living. It can be a striking shift, particularly among endurance cyclists who come from a carb loading culture where pre-race pasta and post-race beer are the norms.
The Glue of Gluten
Gluten – which is Latin for “glue” – is simply a set of proteins that acts as an adhesive material, holding flour together to make bread products. Pizza dough is stretchy thanks to gluten. Gluten is a key reason why breads rise (leavening agents) making a muffin fluffy. Most of us consume gluten in breads made from wheat, rye, spelt, barley and others. But it is also one of the most common food additives used in ice cream, personal care products, margarines, soups, sweeteners, sport bars, gels and blocks. Supermarket aisles abound with products proudly labeled “Gluten free,” and many restaurants now offer gluten-free options. Many athletes are considering cutting back on the amount of gluten in their diets or avoiding it altogether. However, if this is not done carefully, the diet can be unhealthy.
Based on little or no evidence other than testimonials in the media, people have been switching to gluten-free diets to lose weight, boost energy, perform better, or generally feel healthier. Many professional cycling teams and athletes have turned away from gluten. Take the case of the tennis champion, Novak Djokovic. Before he reached number one in the tennis world, he had a long history of respiratory troubles and poor form. A Serbian physician diagnosed Djokovic with gluten intolerance. Djokovic was raised like many other professional athletes, that the best foods for optimal performance were large quantities of bread, pasta, rice, and pizza. After he stopped eating gluten, Djokovic’s respiratory problems disappeared and things started to come together for him and he went on to be the number one ranked tennis player in the world. He even wrote a book about it.
Many athletes find it is easier to maintain their weight by eliminating gluten from their diet. Mountain biker Julien Absalon practices a gluten free diet and has only has 5% body fat during the season. But there is no research on the before-and-after of athletes who switch to a gluten free diet. The Garmin cycling team tried it and most everyone felt better. They did not really see a difference in performance, except in one or two athletes.
But if high level athletes are not gluten sensitive, then why should they avoid gluten in their diets? If gluten is so bad, how have us ordinary Joe’s managed to survive so long while eating it? People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but most will derive no significant benefit from the practice. But there are other reasons to consider this “gluten thing.”
How Gluten Spells Trouble
When people think about gluten sensitivity, one of the first things said is, “I don’t have Celiac disease. I’ve been tested!” There’s a huge difference between Celiac disease and Gluten Sensitivity. Celiac disease is an extreme manifestation of gluten sensitivity. Some studies say about 1 in 200 people have Celiac disease. People of northern European ancestry seem to be more susceptible. People with a true gluten allergy, called celiac disease, can’t tolerate gluten, not even small amounts. Just 50 milligrams of the protein—about the amount in one small crouton—is enough to cause major trouble. You need a doctor and a biopsy to properly diagnose Celiac disease.
In gluten sensitive individuals (about 2% of the population), gluten can provoke an immune system reaction, causing inflammation to the lining of the intestines and other organs like your brain and muscles. It helps to realize that food sensitivities in general are usually a response from the immune system, of which our gut is the largest. In the case of gluten, it may interfere with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients leading to immune reactions. This can interfere with the absorption of nutrients and electrolytes from food, causing a host of symptoms, such as electrolyte depletion and cramps. This inflammation can affect the way your muscles recover after a hard ride. Which is a big deal when we ride our bicycles a lot.
Gluten research is a big deal and there are over 19,000 articles in the medical literature on gluten sensitivity and its impact throughout the body. A prominent gluten researcher is Dr. Allesio Fasano MD from Harvard School of Medicine says that nutritionally speaking, gluten is useless. The problem with gluten is that no human can really digest it. It’s impossible to digest the gluten proteins that are in wheat, barley and rye. He is very clear about this in his presentations. The way he says this is if you take the hydrochloric acid in the human stomach and you put it in a little vial. You put your finger in the vial. It eats your finger to the bone in one minute. One minute! You put some gluten in that vial, it won’t digest the gluten. When you eat gluten, it is not digestible. It’s supposed to be broken down into very small molecules that gets absorbed very easily into the blood stream through the intestines. But this doesn’t happen with gluten.
Gluten Perturbs Digestion
Our digestive system does not possess the enzymes to digest gluten, such that to completely digest the last bits of protein, the stomach produces excess acids, which can then slow digestion or gastro-esophageal reflux. At the level of the intestine, gluten can act like glue and block the normal movements of the small intestines, which are normally very active. This can manifest in intestinal bloating, diarrhea and other problems, even in people who are not sensitive to gluten. Things like this have pushed many athletes to cut out gluten from their diets.
It’s true that many people can tolerate gluten and not get stomach problems. But that doesn’t mean the inflammation caused by gluten is not affecting your brain and muscles. In fact, the gluten we eat today bears little resemblance to the gluten we ate hundreds of years ago. One problem is that little research exists to evaluate the toxicity of “new wheats” made from GMO that we consume nowadays. This is a very controversial subject. But some studies suggest that wheat consumption leads to chronic inflammation. One Canadian study of more than 100 volunteers found a link between eating gluten and chronic inflammation.
Is it Gluten or Just Bad Food?
The real issue may be the many thousands of components in modern processed food that could potentially impair performance. People who go gluten-free may feel better because, they end up cutting out desserts and processed foods, thus losing weight. Any of us that eliminates or removes cookies and candies from our diets, and replaces them with meats, oils, fruits and vegetables is going to feel better. If you eliminate wheat from the diet, make sure to replace it with healthy foods.
Going Gluten Free
Most of you go to your local Coffee Roaster once a week, and every once in a while, you get a blueberry muffin. Let’s assume you’re gluten sensitive. You say, “oh I can’t have my muffins anymore.” Well now, you’re gonna find gluten free blueberry muffins and you think “Oh I can eat that, it’s healthy for me, it’s gluten free.” It’s not healthy for you! It’s just not-as-bad for you as a gluten containing muffin. There’s no reason why you can’t have a blueberry muffin occasionally. But people think just because it’s “healthy for me, its gluten free,” I can have one, or even two!
Avoiding gluten means more than giving up traditional breads, cereals, pasta, pizza, and beer. Gluten also lurks in many other products, including frozen vegetables in sauces, soy sauce, some foods made with “natural flavorings,” vitamin and mineral supplements, some medications, and even toothpaste. This makes following a gluten-free diet extremely challenging.
If you’re determined to go gluten free, it’s important to know that it can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies. For better or worse, breads and cereals have become a major source of B vitamins in the United States. Studies show gluten-free diets can be deficient in fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc.
Keep it to Yourself
The more than 300,000-plus people in this country with true celiac disease who must follow a gluten-free diet, because the tiniest taste of gluten will trigger debilitating gastrointestinal discomfort. It’s time consuming, expensive, restrictive and a gigantic burden for those who have to follow it. People with Celiac disease become frustrated when they hear how wonderful this diet is.
How Gluten affects performance
Researchers have in fact shown that gluten activates receptors in the gut that modulate the activity of certain genes which control the metabolism of glucose and fatty acids, diminishes insulin sensitivity, and favors the conversion of glucose to fat (mainly in our waistlines).
Finally, we have to be concerned with the genetic manipulation of gluten and other plants through genetically modified foods (GMO). Whilst, a very controversial subject, it is undeniable, that the gluten humans ate 1000 years is vastly different to the gluten that we eat today. And there is evidence that ancient gluten proteins were better tolerated than today’s genetically modified gluten proteins. There is also a strong movement that avoiding GMO cereals and breads may be beneficial for most people.
There is no harm in trying a gluten free diet for 2 months, give it a try and let us know how it goes!