5 Reasons to Go Gluten-Free
By JJ VIRGIN
"Everything looks perfect," I told my client, handing back her food journal. Indeed, she ate clean, lean protein at every meal, supplemented smartly, managed stress levels and slept well. As a 43-year-old mother of three, she diligently scheduled weight resistance at the gym and did burst training four days a week.
But despite her efforts, her weight had plateaued and she wasn't building muscle. Then I remembered something she said: Every time she ate bread, her hands swelled up and she became lethargic. I saw this client in the early 2000s, way before "gluten free" became a household phrase. But even then, I knew enough to suggest she eliminate gluten for just three weeks.
During those weeks, a sea change occurred for my client. She began losing weight again, she began building muscle again, and she looked and felt better.
The Gluten-Free Athlete Goes Mainstream
A decade later, swimmer Dana Vollmer, who won her first gold medal and set a new world record for the 100-meter butterfly at the 2012 Olympics, made headlines with her gluten-free diet.
Vollmer's winning meal, which she proudly tweeted, included "rice w/almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and milk! I ate this before my swim last night!"
As an athlete, you want to do everything possible to boost performance, and the first step is figuring out your diet. Here are five reasons why athletes can benefit from going gluten-free.
1. Gluten Damages Your Gut
For people with gluten sensitivity, the damage begins with your gut. Gluten contains a protein with the unwieldy name zonulin, which studies show can damage the junctions that keep protein particles and other undigested foods confined within your gut. When zonulin damages those tight junctions, gut permeability -- also called "leaky gut" -- ensues, and things not intended to get out suddenly do.
"Gluten can result in gut inflammation that may compromise digestion, absorption and assimilation," Dr. Jade Teta, co-author of The Metabolic Effect Diet, told me. "This can impact recovery, given the extreme nutritional requirements of athletes."
To compound matters, exercise also makes your gut more permeable. "Athletes are often not aware that sports, especially impact sports and running, make their guts especially susceptible to injury and leaky gut," says Teta. "So for people with gluten sensitivities, [gut permeability] may be even more of an issue than it would be for nonathletes."
2. Gluten Increases Inflammation
Gluten can exacerbate inflammation, every athlete's worst nightmare. Among the many things that leak through your gut wall (hence the term "leaky gut") are protein fragments. Once in your bloodstream, these foreign proteins lodge in tissues like the synovial membranes lining your joints. Your body perceives them as a threat and creates antibodies to attack these fragments.
In the case of your joints, that inflammation includes swelling and pain that can seriously disrupt your game.
Athletes should eat a diet high in wild-caught fish, leafy and cruciferous veggies and other whole, nutrient-dense foods, all of which can reduce inflammation. To boost that impact even further, remove gluten: Studies show a gluten-free diet can help reduce inflammation.
3. Gluten Impacts Nutrient Intake
Besides providing few nutrients, gluten can actually reduce nutrient synthesis and absorption. Gut permeability and inflammation inhibit your gut from making vitamin B12, which can crash your energy levels, metabolism and mental acuity.
Gluten also contains phytates, which can block mineral absorption. This is problematic for athletes, who need higher amounts of potassium, magnesium and other crucial minerals.
4. Gluten Crashes Your Immune System
Most of the cells that comprise your immune system are located in your gut. Gluten-triggered gut inflammation further stresses your immune system and increases your risk for colds and flu. A weakened immune system also means your body is less able to repair muscle and perform its other post-workout duties.
5. Gluten Can Create Weight-Loss Resistance
Gluten contains lectins, sugar-binding proteins that can cling to insulin receptors and create insulin resistance. They can also bind to your intestinal lining, causing you to store more calories as fat. To worsen matters, lectins can trigger leptin resistance. (Leptin tells your brain to stop eating. When you're resistant, your brain doesn't always get the message.)
Combine lectins with leaky gut, inflammation and poor nutrient levels that can stall metabolism, and you've got a surefire way to pile on weight, even if you're rigorously exercising.
Most gluten-containing carbohydrates also raise your blood sugar, which elevates insulin levels; when your insulin levels are chronically high, your body will start to store fat instead of burning it. Besides reducing inflammation, studies show a gluten-free diet can reduce your risk for insulin resistance and diabetes.
Whether you're an everyday athlete or a weekend warrior, I believe you'll see improved performance by going gluten-free for three weeks, especially if you've struggled with lethargy and other problems that stall your progress.
You can't do it halfway: You've got to remove every last trace of gluten in your diet to see those benefits. (And, no, that does not give you permission to eat gluten-free cookies and cupcakes.)
Many clients notice improvements within the first week. Like my client above, they have more energy, less post-exercise soreness and a newfound vigor. You've got nothing to lose except those stubborn pounds.
Readers -- Have you tried a gluten-free diet? Why or why not? If so, has it helped you with weight loss and/or improving athletic performance? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Celebrity nutrition and fitness expert JJ Virgin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Virgin Diet and Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy. She was also a co-host of TLC's Freaky Eaters. JJ frequently blogs for The Huffington Post, LIVESTRONG.COM and other prominent media outlets. She created the "4 x 4 Burst Training Workout" and regularly appears on TV shows like Rachael Ray and Today to discuss topics such as fast fat loss, weight loss and food sensitivities.
Braly, J, et al. (2002). Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health. New York, NY: Avery Trade.
Wangen, S. (2009). Healthier without Wheat: A new understanding of wheat allergies, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten intolerance. Seattle, WA: Innate Health Publishing.