As 3 million Americans with celiac disease can attest to, along with 18 million Americans with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, eating gluten can cause gastrointestinal trouble, inflammation, muscle fatigue and mental fog—all things that can interfere with an active lifestyle and your workout regimen.
Now, a surprising thesis is emerging that affects just about everyone: Ditching gluten from your diet may give you an athletic edge, even if you’re not gluten intolerant.
Nixing this protein, which is commonly found in wheat, barley and rye, can not only reduce or eliminate those nasty side effects, it can also boost an athlete’s performance on the track and in the gym. When the body is already stressed, as under an athlete’s high training load, or when the athlete is already well-trained and looking to squeak the last few percentage points of performance out of his or her body, gluten’s impact can take on heightened significance.
So does this mean we have to completely rid our diets of gluten to notice an impact in athletic performance? That depends.
For people without a gluten intolerance, athletic performance can also be improved by cutting out gluten, resulting in less bloating, reduced inflammation, and better post-workout recovery.
If you’re considering cutting out gluten either by choice or necessity, keep in mind that just because a product is labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. A gluten-free diet does not necessarily equal a healthy diet. It is still important to have an eating plan that includes a variety of foods from all of the food groups.
That also means staying away three types of food: The worst offenders—no surprise—are probably foods like cake and cookies, because they have the gluten, plus lots of sugar and unhealthy fat.
Instead, your best bet is a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats and carefully chosen whole grains, according to Mangieri. “The difference is in the grains you choose,” she says.
The best sources of carbohydrates to aid in training and recovery are flax, quinoa, amaranth, millet, corn, potatoes, buckwheat, soy, tapioca and wild rice, recommends Mangieri. For snacks, opt for popcorn, rice cakes and gluten-free pretzels. And of course, fruits and vegetables add to the carbohydrate need of athletes without any gluten.