Why Are Athletes Going Gluten Free?

Recent studies show gluten free diets are not scientifically proven to benefit those who are not celiac, so why would athletes known for needing carbs to keep energy up for performance willingly go gluten free if they don’t need to?

For many of us who have discovered the gluten free diet, we learned about it after suffering some pretty uncomfortable gastrointestinal experiences.  Whether or not you have celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, or you simply feel better without gluten, it seems that those of us who have been willing to give up the “gluteny goodness” of pastas, pastries, and breads have found it well worth the sacrifice.  But, could athletes be coming around to the same conclusion?

Are Athletes Different From the Rest of Us?

There are no medical traits that set athletes apart from the rest of us.  Athletes are those people who have devoted themselves to being the best they can be physically.  Because of this, they pay attention to their diets and what they eat.  Most athletes cannot handle being put on the sidelines if they have severe allergies, asthma attacks, or migraines.

Athletes Use the Best and Latest in Tech Equipment to Mine for Data

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Athletes are now turning to science for direction on all things health related.  Just look at the hottest trend in fitness—the FitBit.  You have probably seen friends and neighbors wearing on of these digital wristbands that were designed for athletes (and those of us who want to be athletes).  These bands can monitor your pulse, oxygen levels, sleep, and weight.  Athletes use these to keep up with the most minute details of their performance.  Shoes, clothes, and exercise equipment are also being designed using cutting edge science to make them more efficient and safer.

Athletes Find Their Own Solution

But when a doctor can’t help you explain a health issue or fix it with medications, what do most of us do?  Depending on how desperate we are—anything!  That’s what led many of us to the gluten free lifestyle.  Naturally, just like the FitBit crossed over into non-athletes lifestyles, word of the gluten free diet is crossing over to athletes.  They hear about others great success with getting rid of gluten and decide to give it a try only to find enormous benefits that they weren’t even looking for!

Tennis Player Novak Djokovic

When tennis player Novak Djokovic changed his diet, he saw huge results.  In fact, his experiences led him to write a book, Serve to Win:  The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence.  Before the diet change, he had a reputation for being unpredictable and uneven and he was also prone to sickness that could put him on the sidelines.  A year after changing his diet, he went on to win ten tennis titles, three Grand Slam event, and forty-three straight matches.  “It wasn’t a new racquet, a new workout, a new coach, or even a new serve that helped me lose weight, find mental focus, and enjoy the best health of my life.  It was a new diet,” says Djokovic.

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Star Quarterback Drew Brees

Star quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints knows just how much food allergies can hurt your performance.  In interviews, Drew points to feeling lethargic and knowing he wasn’t performing at his highest level.   This made him get tested for food allergies.  The test came back that he was sensitive to dairy and gluten.  He was shocked to say the least.  But, he made the necessary changes to his diet and now says that he feels much better and can complete more intense workouts that are worthy of a Super Bowl MVP.

Medical Community Has Concerns

New studies are out that state that only people with celiac and “true” gluten sensitivities really benefit from a gluten free diet.  There are also those who claim it is dangerous for athletes to go gluten free without a medical reason.  Dana Lis, a nutrition Ph.D and co-author of a new study, found 41% of non-celiac-athletes choose a gluten-free diet most of the time.  She also worries that these athletes are risking their health because they can’t “carb up” to get optimal fuel, fiber, iron, probiotics, and some B vitamins found in gluten rich foods.  This is really true, she says, with all of the travel demands on athletes going to competitions.

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Triathlete Finds Relief

But tell that to Barbara Davis, a triathlete who tore a muscle and still had a very hurt leg more than a year later.  She went to physical therapists, orthopedists, and other medical professionals without easing her pain.  When a young chiropractor suggested she eliminate gluten because of the inflammation in her leg, she took his advice and got relief.  “I gave up the gluten, and the pain stopped,” she says.

Marathon Runner Experiences Improved Performance… and More

Anna Medaris Miller, a marathon runner, reported about her experience for the Washington Post:  “Since cutting gluten out of my diet in August of last year, I’ve noticed a profound change: My digestion is gentler, my sleep is sounder, my energy level is more even. These benefits also seem to have led to improved athletic performance. Since going off gluten, I placed in a race for the first time in my adult life, won a small community biathlon and achieved a personal best in a 5K run. Most important, I felt good while doing it.”

The Answer:  Athletes Want the Physical Advantage a Gluten Free Diet Can Give

Why are athletes going gluten free?  It seems the answer is simple:  they find benefits just like we do.  They use the data their bodies are giving them and then make necessary changes to keep reaching new heights of physical success!

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