by Madeleine Kelly

The gluten-free diet has been on the radar of health-conscious people for over a decade. The diet was intended for people with celiac disease, but became very popular among athletes. A 2015 study from the University of Tasmania found that 41 per cent of athletes follow a gluten-free diet, with 57 per cent of those athletes self-diagnosing their sensitivity to gluten.

There are certainly people who need to avoid gluten, those with celiac disease being the most common example. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes reactions to gluten in the small intestine. Some people also have varying levels of gluten intolerance with a range of side effects. Those side effects include: bloating, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. The problem is that these GI issues can be caused by a host of things–not just gluten.

However, a recent study in the Journal of Gastroenterology suggests that in many people, gluten doesn’t cause any GI distress. Researchers found that in healthy populations, flour that contained gluten didn’t have any negative effects on their sample group. They also suggest that there is potentially clinical justification for embracing gluten if you don’t have celiac disease or a sensitivity.

A 2017 study by the American Diabetes Association looked at the dangers of excluding gluten and found that in healthy populations, a gluten-free diet could result in lower fibre intake and nutritional deficiencies from consuming a limited array of foods.

Tomato pasta

Eating a healthy diet is obviously desirable. Figuring out what constitutes a healthy diet can take many athletes (especially younger athletes) down an unhealthy path into orthorexia and other eating disorders if they lack correct information about nutrition. Many athletes can create a list of foods they don’t eat (often including gluten), which can cause big problems. 

Cyclists will often grab for foods that are typically easier to digest and sit well in the stomach before a big ride or event. Foods containing gluten tend to fit that description. For example: white bread, breakfast cereal and pasta all make the list and unless specified otherwise, all contain gluten.

As with all things nutrition, consuming a well-balanced and varied diet is the way to go. If you’re someone who can tolerate gluten, there’s no reason why your diet shouldn’t include it.

A version of this story first appeared at Canadian Running Magazine.

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