Athletes Are Suckers for Gluten-Free

Yes, 41 percent of athletes follow the diet (but don't need to)

Jul 10, 2014
Outside Magazine
gluten free athletes diets nutrition

Athletes think the gluten found in wheat and other grains is holding them back—but researchers are not so sure.    Ten03/Thinkstock

In the world of nutrition, few things have caused as much controversy as the humble loaf of bread.

First, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (only about 7 to 12 percent of the population) spurned gluten; fad dieters and, increasingly, athletes followed suit. The tug-of-war continues—many think gluten-free for the masses is a fraud, though there may still be something to it—but it turns out that many active types pay no heed. A recent survey of athletes without celiac disease found that 41 percent of respondents keep gluten out of their diet anyway.

The study, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, asked 910 non-celiac athletes whether they followed a gluten-free diet and how closely they stuck to it.

More than half of those who said they've gone gluten-free diagnosed themselves with gluten sensitivity, and many said they started the diet after experiencing gastrointestinal problems. (Or maybe they took inspiration from tennis star Novak Djokovic, who eliminated gluten from his diet after a doctor held a piece of bread against his stomach and he felt "noticeably weaker.")

Still, 70 percent of the gluten-free respondents identify as endurance athletes, and 18 are medalists in world championships or the Olympics. And many respondents reported improved performance, decreased illness, and improved body composition after starting the diet.

So maybe they really are fine without the stuff, though as the study's authors point out, carbo-loading is a lot harder when you're gluten-free. In fact, the authors are skeptical themselves, saying that they believe a strong placebo effect may account for reported successes. "I can't say I was surprised by these numbers," co-author Dana Lis said, but "I was more surprised at how strongly the athletes believed in the diet, without any scientific backing."

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