Gluten Free Athletes; Photo Courtesy: Thom Wynn

Gluten Free Athletes; Photo Courtesy: Thom Wynn

For the last two years or so, we have heard a lot about athletes going gluten free.  We must give serious credit to raising the level of gluten free awareness in the sports world to Novak Djokovic who is currently ranked number 2 by the Association of Tennis Professionals.  He went gluten free in 2010 and has had a lot of success since then winning many tournaments and grand slam titles, even being positioned in the #1 spot for a year from October 2012- October 2013.

Djokovic isn’t the only one finding the gluten free diet’s has an impact on their athletic performance.  According to, six athletes (including Djokovic) were gluten free for the 2012 Olympic games.  Half of them ate gluten free because of a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

The Winter Olympics will be in Russia in February of 2014.  Just last week the Canadian Press reported Canadian speed skater Christine Nesbitt went gluten free after a celiac diagnosis earlier this year.  She told the paper since her diagnosis and gluten free diet regimen, “a lot of her symptoms have disappeared” and that she recovers better after hard training days.

Does gluten free REALLY help athletes?

Can the gluten free diet really up an athlete’s game?  Well if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity I see that it could help, especially if you were fighting debilitating symptoms before going gluten free. This is the true benefit of going gluten free for anyone who gets ill from it — you will be better at school, work, play — whatever you do — because you don’t feel awful! “I’ve learned it’s not normal to be bloated every single day of your life,” Nesbitt told the Canadian Press in that aforementioned interview.  This is what many people with celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity say about their illness.  They didn’t know what normal was supposed to feel like until they went gluten free.

But what about folks who don’t need the gluten free diet for health reasons?  An article last month in the Washington Post had interesting answers from two experts.  “If you have nothing wrong with you as far as absorptive disorders, there there’s no benefit by cutting out gluten,” says Felicia Stoler a nutritionist and exercise psychologist in New Jersey, who is also president of the Greater New York chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Alessio Fasano of the Center for Celiac Research at Mass General in Boston, admits gluten isn’t very useful to our bodies.  But in the Washington Post article he took this question to the level of the elite athlete, “When you go to the high-level performing athletes in which a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing an event or be[ing] able to complete a marathon or not within a certain time frame, that can be the small edge that helps you.”

A gluten free athlete speaks from experience

Peter Bronski is an expert in this area.  He is a multi-sport athlete who competes in, among other things, ultramarathons.  Bronski also has celiac disease and has co-authored a book with Melissa McLean Jory, MNT, called “The Gluten-Free Edge”.  I spoke with Bronski last November for a Q and A article with Gluten-Free Living magazine which ran earlier this year.  He says each athlete reacts to a gluten-free diet differently, “…[the gluten free diet] is not going to be a silver bullet for everyone and so they need to try it out and see how it works for themselves, if they are adopting it voluntarily.”

Bronski says gluten can cause problems with digestion  and inflammation.  On the subject of digestion, Bronski says, “If you combine GI distress from athletics and GI distress from gluten, those two things can come together to cause greater problems.”   As for inflammation, Bronski added, “You may have temporary immune suppression after a hard workout….but inflammation that you experience as a result of consuming gluten can impact an athlete’s recovery time…and  performance.”

So should these athletes be getting tested for celiac before going gluten free?  Bronski says if you suspect celiac, getting tested before you go gluten free would be good.  But ultimately “athletes [who are going gluten free]  need to make an individual choice if they want to get tested first or not.”

I guess the answer to the main question of this article is….right now there is no firm answer.  There is no official research out there to prove or disprove anyone’s theories, thoughts or beliefs on this topic.  By hearing a variety of experts’ opinions on the matter, you can make a judgement for yourself.

Bronski’s gluten free athlete suggestions:

Good gluten free foods to add:

  • Sweet Potatoes! A great carb with a lower glycemic index than white potatoes. “Whether they are baked, roasted, sweet potato fries, whatever you choose, I think those are a really excellent choice.”
  • A good protein:  could be red meat, bison, other non-meat sources of protein. “the iron is really an important component for athletic performance.”

Foods to eliminate:

  • “Anything that would be made of highly-refined gluten-free starches and have a lot of empty calories in it.”

If you get glutened and having GI symptoms:

  • Rehydrate!
  • Consider an L-Glutamine supplement (making sure it is gluten free) “…glutamine has been positively associated with is gut health and gut recovery.” Click here for more info on glutamine


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