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Got Gluten?

2016, as with 2014 and 2015 has been dominated by headlines espousing the dangers, problems and pitfalls of consuming gluten.

The ‘symptoms’ of the now demonised, but often misunderstood gluten can range from tummy troubles, to dementia if some sources are to be believed (see The Grain Brain and similar texts). The confusion and hype around gluten are probably best summarised by this short video. On a slightly more serious note, please read on for the latest take on Gluten and athletic performance.

What is gluten?

Gluten, from the Latin gluten for glue, is a composite of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye products or cereals if we’re speaking more broadly. These proteins are typically used for storage by the plant species, and give dough its characteristic stretchiness, as kneading develops them.

Gluten is not found in all carbohydrates however, with maize, potatoes and rice being termed gluten free.

How do we deal with gluten?

By and large the majority of us (90-95%) will tolerate gluten and deal with gluten containing foods without any adverse reaction. There are a number of conditions, and even specific situations though where people may not be able to tolerate gluten: The most well known and perhaps serious of these conditions is Coeliac disease, whereby the villi in an individual’s intestine cannot function properly as a result of inflammation caused by gluten. This affects 1-2% of the population and may result in parallel conditions, for example the malabsorption of key nutrients such as iron.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is a lesser understood, but more prevalent condition (6-10% estimated). Symptoms often improve with the removal of gluten from the diet, and can be exasperated by stress or heavy training. This condition is often self-diagnosed leading to confusion regarding symptoms, performance, prevalence and treatment. If in doubt, speak to a registered dietician, or sports nutritionist. Finally there is wheat allergy, this like Coeliac disease is a medical condition and so requires medical diagnosis and treatment.

Are there any reasons people may not eat gluten?

In athletic populations we’ve seen a rapid growth in gluten free, or gluten restricted diets. Athletes report following gluten free diets for a number of reasons, including improved gastrointestinal symptoms, an increased motivation to train, decreased fatigue and better performance. However, we’re often found wanting in this department when it comes to evidence of such improvements. It’s worth noting that ~60% of athletes who follow a gluten free diet are self diagnosed; furthermore fewer than 10% have a diagnosis of IBS or gluten sensitivity, and only 1% follow a gluten free diet as a result of a consultation with a nutritionist or registered dietician.

Gluten and Athletic performance

So are there any performance benefits to a gluten free diet? Despite physiological mechanisms, and practice-based evidence of acute non-coeliac gluten sensitivity for elite endurance athletes competing in events such as the Tour de France it appears not. Many athletes report accompanying changes in healthy eating behaviours and body composition i.e. they get a bit leaner. Eating more fruits and vegetables, and altering the availability of carbohydrate around training sessions may explain these outcomes. Couple this with a belief that not eating gluten is beneficial, spending more money on gluten free products and fitting into a new group and you’ve a recipe for an improvement in performance. This may sound glib, but in the absence of underlying conditions, very few athletes’ performance improvements are down to gluten free eating alone. Although there are always exceptions, the only study conducted on this to date showed a 100% negligible effect of a gluten free diet on cycling time trial performance.

The final piece of the pie

Whilst I’ll continue to watch this area with interest, most readers are not going to be running 100miles per week, or embarking on a Tour de France like ride any time soon; ultra-runners....we may need to talk. In summary, unless you’ve a diagnosis of gluten related condition, eat (gluten-containing) carbohydrates in preparation for key sessions; otherwise get some plants on your plate.

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