You may have heard that tennis great Novak Djokovic recently attributed much of his phenomenal success to giving up gluten, a type of protein naturally found in wheat, rye and barley. Djokovic’s recent No. 2 in the world ranking has many athletes and active people wondering if they should kiss bagels goodbye. The truth is, going gluten-free isn’t as easy as eliminating a few foods. As for whether it will help you perform better, the answer is: it depends. Here are five facts to consider:
Some People Must Eliminate Gluten
For those with celiac disease, eliminating gluten is essential. In people with this digestive disorder, even small amounts of gluten trigger the immune system to damage or destroy villi, the tiny, fingerlike outgrowths that line the small intestine. Healthy villi help absorb nutrients through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. When they’re damaged, chronic malnutrition occurs, and the only way to reverse it is to completely avoid the trigger.
A Diagnosis Can Be Tricky
You might think that if you have celiac disease you’d know it, but the symptoms can vary considerably. While some people experience severe abdominal bloating, pain and diarrhea, other signs include fatigue, bone or joint pain, depression and anxiety, which are often mistakenly attributed to other conditions. In fact, because the severity of symptoms largely depend on a person’s age and the degree of damage to the small intestine, many adults struggle with unwanted side effects for years before being diagnosed. The first step toward a diagnosis is a blood test to detect higher than normal levels of certain autoantibodies, a common finding in those with the illness. If the test results are negative but celiac is still suspected the next step is an intestinal biopsy to check for damaged villi. Many doctors will do a biopsy either way, if the blood test is positive to confirm the diagnosis, or if it's negative to eliminate the possibility of a false positive.
You Can Test Negative But Still Suffer From Symptoms
According to the National Institutes of Health about one in every 133 adults in the US has celiac; however, many experts believe the prevalence is much higher, and recent research has confirmed that some people who test negative for the disease experience similar symptoms, which improve when they avoid gluten. This condition, known as Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerant or NCGI, doesn’t involve damage to the intestinal villi, but sufferers may experience flu-like feelings, diarrhea, gas, acid reflux, fatigue and weight loss. If you have undiagnosed celiac disease or NCGI, removing gluten from your diet will undoubtedly improve your energy and athletic performance.
Gluten Hides in Many Places!
Giving up gluten can be daunting. In addition to various grains gluten lurks in many salad dressings, seasonings, and beer, as well as everyday products including medicines, some vitamins, and even lip balm. Adopting a gluten-free diet and lifestyle, particularly cold turkey, requires a steep learning curve and a major commitment, particularly for active people who need to consume enough carbohydrate to power working muscles. Brown and wild rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and teff are among the gluten-free whole grains allowed. They’re often used in alternative breads, cereals, crackers, pastas, tortillas and other staples, which can now be found in many mainstream grocery stores. Gluten-free cookbooks and online support communities are also terrific resources, and numerous restaurants now offer gluten-free selections, if not separate menus.
An Expert is Your Best Resource
Many competitive and recreational athletes opt to enlist the help of a dietitian or nutritionist who can craft an individualized meal plan free from gluten but adequate for an athlete’s performance and recovery needs. If your body is not intolerant eliminating gluten may offer no benefits, either nutritionally speaking or performance wise, but the only way to test your tolerance may be to monitor how you feel with and without gluten in your system. If you suspect that you’re suffering from celiac disease or NCGI make an appointment with your physician to discuss testing options. Or to try a 30-day gluten-free ‘challenge’ look for a registered dietitian in your area who specializes in both gluten-free diets and sports nutrition. You can search by both specialty and zip code at www.eatright.org.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.