Don’t eat your Wheaties: Why some elite athletes are going gluten-free

More and more Olympic competitors are crediting more energy, better race times, faster recoveries, and fewer injuries to a gluten-free lifestyle. But does the evidence support it?


By Casey Gillespie for

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.

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