Strength. Power. Endurance. These are all important qualities to an athlete. Proper training and nutrition have always been key to athletic success, but have you ever wondered if a more specific diet could enhance your performance?
Gluten-free diets, essential for those suffering from celiac disease and wheat allergies, have also become popular with athletes. Some may go gluten free in an effort to deal with GI problems like bloating and cramping. Others may have no specific complaints, but think cutting gluten will somehow up their game.
Dietitian Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition & Performance at Drexel University, said many people who diagnose themselves with a gluten sensitivity report feeling better after changing their diet, but the reports are only anecdotal.
"There is no science to support that a gluten-free diet enhances performance," Dardarian said.
In a study set to publish in the December 2015 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the University of Tasmania and the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific followed 13 non-celiac competitive cyclists as they followed both a gluten-free and a gluten-containing diet. Their results showed no difference in GI problems or athletic performance.
Still, Dardarian said, it's possible that cutting gluten could wind up improving your diet indirectly.
"Oftentimes when they feel better it is not because of the lack of gluten, but everything else associated with the diet," she said.
Since gluten is present in so many processed products, going without it usually means eating more whole foods.
"You are looking at foods more carefully, making better choices, eating less processed foods, more vegetables - in general eating a very healthy diet."
If you are having GI problems and are not diagnosed with celiac disease, Dardarian suggests considering how much fiber, alcohol and caffeine you consume before exercise because these, too, could be culprits.
Can going gluten-free hurt athletes? The danger is that they might not be getting enough carbohydrates to fuel their training. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that "endurance athletes consume 2.3 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight each day, depending on the type of training they engage in."
Not all gluten-free foods are low in carbohydrates — rice and potatoes are good sources. But many people on gluten-free diets don't eat enough whole grains, an important source of vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrates.
So restricting your food choices when it isn't medically necessary might be hurting your performance, not helping it.