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  • Jefferson Adams

    Gluten-free Diet Useless for Athletes Without Celiac Disease

    Jefferson Adams
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    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 06/26/2015 - The vast majority of people who follow a gluten-free diet do not have celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Many people who follow a gluten-free diet do so because of perceived health benefits. This includes a number of athletes who feel that the diet improves their energy levels, performance and recovery time.

    Photo: CC--Raghu MohanIn fact, the adoption of gluten-free diets by non-celiac athletes has risen sharply in recent years due to perceived ergogenic and health benefits. New research however, casts doubt on those ideas.



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    The research was conducted by a team that set out to evaluate the effects of a gluten-free diet (GFD) on exercise performance, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, perceived well-being, intestinal damage, and inflammatory responses in non-celiac athletes. The research team included Dana Lis, Trent Stellingwerff, Cecilia M. Kitic, Kiran D.K., and James Fell.

    For their study, they looked at thirteen competitive endurance cyclists, 8 male, 5 female, with no positive clinical screening for celiac disease or history of irritable bowel syndrome.

    These cyclists followed a seven day gluten-containing diet (GCD) or GFD separated by a 10-day washout in a controlled randomized double-blind, cross-over study. Cyclists ate a GFD alongside either gluten-containing or gluten-free food bars, while the team controlled habitual training and nutrition behaviors. Total gluten intake was 16g wheat gluten per day.

    During each diet, cyclists completed the Daily Analysis of Life Demand for Athletes (DALDA) and GI questionnaires, both before and after exercise and daily.

    On day seven cyclists completed a sub-maximal steady-state (SS) 45 minute ride at 70% peak power followed by a 15 minute time-trial (TT).

    The researchers took blood samples before exercise, post SS and post TT to determine intestinal fatty acid binding protein (IFABP) and inflammatory markers (cytokine responses: IL-1[beta], IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-15, TNF-[alpha]). They employed mixed effect logistic regression to analyze data.

    The results showed that TT performance was basically the same (p=0.37) between the GCD (245.4+/-53.4kJ) and GFD (245.0+/-54.6kJ).

    GI symptoms during exercise, daily, and DALDA responses were also similar for each diet (p>0.11). There were no significant differences in IFABP (p=0.69) or cytokine (P>0.13) responses.

    These results show that a short-term GFD has no impact on performance, GI symptoms, well-being, or upon a select indicator of intestinal injury or inflammatory markers in non-celiac endurance athletes.

    So, basically, if you're an athlete who does not have celiac disease, then a gluten-free diet is not going to provide any performance or recovery benefits to you.

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    I know someone with juvenile hemochromatosis. His iron for 60 years has been extremely high despite frequent phlebotomies. He is a dedicated athlete but has low oxygen capacity. He tried gluten free and after a couple of weeks he had more than half his iron disappear. Needless to say the medical people were incredulous. His version of gluten free is to start the day with gluten free food but never give up any nice treats he comes across in his travels. Hugely successful for him.

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    This study is illegitimate, in my opinion. First, you did not give any credentials for the team of researchers, and the design of the study shows that they do not know what they are doing. The athletes need to be on a GFD much longer than a week, and they need to look at their results in at least two real world races. The researchers obviously were looking to disprove the value of a gluten-free diet and don't know anything about gluten issues.

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    As usual a limited study with sweeping conclusions. You could do better reporting to emphasize, as mentioned in the second to last paragraph, that all this study really shows is that a week long gluten free diet doesn't show a benefit. But as any number of gluten sensitive people will tell you it can take weeks to months to see a benefit from following a GFD. The last paragraph seems completely unnecessary, what's with all the "unless you have celiac disease" stuff? This study hardly proves that a GFD doesn't improve long term health and performance, only that in the very short term it doesn't change symptoms and performance in people who had no symptoms to start with.

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    I would like to know the source for the comment: the vast majority of people on a GFD do not have celiac disease. Further, I stopped listening to the rest of the article when I realized the study involves 13 people (sample size too small for normal distribution). The author did a great job summarizing the study, but I don't believe the conclusions he came to are proven-given the information he wrote.

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    This study is illegitimate, in my opinion. First, you did not give any credentials for the team of researchers, and the design of the study shows that they do not know what they are doing. The athletes need to be on a GFD much longer than a week, and they need to look at their results in at least two real world races. The researchers obviously were looking to disprove the value of a gluten-free diet and don't know anything about gluten issues.

    Michael, I am not sure if the researchers set out to disprove the value of a GFD, but they did exactly that in a small number of people. Why do you believe they know nothing about gluten issues?

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    I know someone with juvenile hemochromatosis. His iron for 60 years has been extremely high despite frequent phlebotomies. He is a dedicated athlete but has low oxygen capacity. He tried gluten free and after a couple of weeks he had more than half his iron disappear. Needless to say the medical people were incredulous. His version of gluten free is to start the day with gluten free food but never give up any nice treats he comes across in his travels. Hugely successful for him.

    I know someone who believes in ghosts. Also, if I'm not sure what incredulous means, but if it means they were looking for sources of blood loss to ensure he was not bleeding to death, then I trust their judgement.

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    I have seen no mention of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This class of people was not considered. I may well be in that category (undiagnosed). I know personally that I do not do well at all on gluten, sometimes being flattened/prostrated with flu like symptoms and migraine. That would not bode well for athletic performance.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,500 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.


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