Don't eat your Wheaties

Today's champions are going gluten-free to improve their performance. Should you?

Adopting a gluten-free diet doesn't have the visibility, sexiness or cache of, say, a lucrative endorsement deal, but when high-profile athletes such as Novak Djokovic and Drew Brees do it, you better believe the sports world takes notice.

Which partly explains why, as the London 2012 Olympics approach, g-free is the buzz phrase on many athletes’ lips. American distance runner Amy Yoder Begley and British runner Andrew Steele are just a few of the Olympic competitors who credit more energy, better race times, faster recoveries and fewer injuries to a gluten-free lifestyle. The explanation? Eliminating gluten can lead to a reduction in inflammation and aids the body in digestion, explains Paul Spector, MD, ASCM and Equinox Tier 4 coach in New York City. "There's a huge spectrum of intolerance — varying degrees of how people are able to absorb gluten — so it's not a question of either you have it or you don't," he says. "From an evolutionary standpoint, a lot of us are not wired to process grains very well. Grains are pro-inflammatory. In avoiding them you're allowing for proper absorption of the nutrients and energy you need."

That said, according to a number of reports by medical experts, including the Australian Sports Commission, there is no evidence that healthy athletes following a gluten-free diet will see any performance benefits over an athlete who follows a balanced diet containing gluten. “If you do not have an intolerance, then there is no reason to eliminate a food from your diet,” stresses Amanda Carlson-Phillips, MS, RD, CSSD and VP of Nutrition and Research for Athletes’ Performance and Core Performance in Arizona. But like any healthy eating plan, there are benefits to going gluten-free. “It encourages label reading and more awareness, leading to a healthier diet filled with less processed foods and the introduction of higher quality grains like quinoa.” Which isn't to say a change in lifestyle is a guarantee of good health. “A poorly planned switch can backfire, leading to an inadequate intake of complex carbs, vitamins and minerals. A runner who isn't careful could end up eating a lot of refined carbs and added fats, leading to weight gain,” warns Carlson-Phillips.

Talk to wheat-free converts and they'll swear they see improvements. Fiona Rennie is a marathon runner from Glasgow who decided to go gluten-free in January. “I'm less sluggish and I have more energy because I now sleep better than ever. When you combine more energy and better sleep, my head is clearer and my concentration is a lot better,” she says. Olympic athlete Nathan Brannen, a Canadian middle distance runner, decided to give up gluten a little more than a year ago in an effort to reduce injuries. “This gluten-free practice was something [my coach] had been doing for years as an injury prevention strategy. My injuries have been at a minimum since making the switch, and my running is stronger than ever.”

While anecdotally the benefits abound, there is no documented connection between a healthy athlete's performance and the consumption of gluten. What we do know is that due to popular demand, Olympic village catering will provide gluten-free options to competitors this summer. And Genius Foods, one of Europe’s leading gluten-free brands, is getting on the Olympic bandwagon by sponsoring Andrew Steele, one of UK's top runners, who again, has no medical reasons for giving up his wheat. It is a debate in which only time, and the Olympic leaderboard, will tell.