Gluten-free diets are revered as "enlightened eating" by followers -- and this hot trend is now making its way to the London Olympic Games, with a few high-profile athletes reporting greater gains in performance after banning wheat from their plates.
"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," reports Q by Equinox.
Tennis champion Novak Djokovic's nutritionist discovered last year that the star was allergic to gluten, and he reported a boost in physical energy and weight loss after altering his diet.
A gluten-free diet is traditionally used to treat celiac disease, which is marked by an inflammation in the small intestines when digesting gluten. But gluten-free followers believe that there is a spectrum of intolerance to pretzels and pizza dough. "From an evolutionary standpoint, a lot of us are not wired to process grains very well," said Paul Spector, MD, ASCM and Equinox Tier 4 coach in New York City, in an interview with Q by Equinox. "Grains are pro-inflammatory. In avoiding them you're allowing for proper absorption of the nutrients and energy you need."
Others disagree, saying that there is no scientific evidence of improved athletic performance in eliminating gluten, or that anyone without celiac disease would need to ban gluten from their diets. "I know of no evidence confirming that this kind of diet leads to all the health benefits being claimed for it these days, everything from relief of other auto-immune disorders to osteoporosis, arthritis, depression, and indigestion," writes American nutrition expert Dr. Andrew Weil on his website.
But will going gluten-free give athletes an edge? No, Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., an Atlanta-based sports dietitian, told ESPN. "It will only help those who are truly sensitive to gluten, but it won't benefit those who aren't." Also don't make the mistake of assuming gluten-free packaged products are healthier options, because that's not necessarily the case, she adds.
Still, the Olympic Village will reportedly be providing plenty of gluten-free options to athletes this summer. And Genius Foods, one of Europe's top gluten-free brands, is sponsoring Steele, who has no medical reasons for giving up gluten.