Celiac.com 07/12/2016 - Late in 1998 after discussions with a colleague, who later became my mentor in this field, some loud bells started to ring inside my head as we talked about this little-known (to me at least) condition called celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, as well as non celiac gluten sensitivity. Both of these ailments are triggered by a family of dietary proteins called gluten. Of course, I had been following eating practices based on commonly held beliefs about wheat as the "staff of life" and doing things that were taught to me as 'scientifically accurate'. Yet talking with my colleague, I kept getting answers that implicated this nutritional food group for a myriad of problems that I'd had for as long as I could remember.
As a high school athletics coach and teacher of Health and Physical Education, now, I often find myself offering dietary concepts and information to students and colleagues that is at odds with what I learned at university just over 20 years ago. And the misinformation I learned is still commonly being touted, even today. Admittedly, research in the field of Nutrition has undergone some dramatic changes over the last two decades, but what I'm talking about is a more fundamental shift in thinking about what we eat and whether it will promote optimum athletic performance, protection from disease, longevity, and a healthy body composition that is more in line with wellness.
For instance, I was taught that carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for our muscles, and that carbing-up prior to an athletic event is an effective and desirable strategy. I was also taught that weight loss could be achieved through increased physical activity. I now view these issues very differently. Athletic performance is often enhanced by avoiding many of the foods, such as gluten and sugar, that I was taught to value. Today, I am constantly seeing articles or interviews about high performance athletes who have left the old nutrition paradigm behind and are having great success and increased career longevity in their chosen field. Novak Djokovic is one prominent example where the underlying problem was celiac disease. Vande Velde and Tom Danielson are two professional cyclists who also report performance increases from a gluten-free diet (1). Such a shift in eating can also, especially among young people, remove or reduce learning disabilities as reported by one school that works only with children who struggle with dyslexia (2).
Conventional thinkers seem to believe that these benefits have something to do with improved nutrient absorption. However, they may come from enhanced nerve conduction or function. After all, Marios Hadjivassiliou and his colleagues at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital at the University of Sheffield have long been reporting that gluten, even in the absence of celiac disease, is responsible for a large portion of neurological ailments of unknown origin (3). Or the improvements may come from something entirely different. But wherever the improved performance and health are coming from, the gluten-free diet seems to be a great starting place.
For instance, a former student, C.W., who has given his permission for me to talk about his case, experienced dramatic changes on a gluten-free and dairy free diet. Already an accomplished athlete, C.W. had also struggled for years with serious academic problems. He struggled with his reading and his writing and was still functioning at the level of an elementary student. A colleague and I recommended that C.W. try this diet to hone his fitness. Not only did he enhance his athletic performance, his reading skills improved abruptly and dramatically. Both his comprehension and his reading speed increased significantly over just a few months. Before he had been on the diet a full year, he was reading novels for pleasure. This was a far cry from his prior brushes with reading, where he was often unable to remember what was said in a sentence he had just finished reading. Certainly, by the end of a paragraph he was previously unable to say how it had begun. Now, he is reading novels, enjoying the experience, and he remembers them well enough to be able to talk, in detail, about the story.
My own experience with the gluten-free diet has not produced such rapid results, at least regarding my reading and writing. I certainly felt healthier very quickly, and found it much easier to have a leaner body composition. Many of my minor physical complaints also disappeared, but it has taken years for my struggles with reading to diminish. Today, I am able to read highly technical reports from the peer reviewed medical and nutritional literature. I also find myself reading large, technical books about nutrition and other health issues. I read them cover-to-cover, and I understand most of what I read.
My writing is also improving gradually. There is no question in my mind that the gluten-free diet has helped me enormously in these areas, although much more slowly than they helped C.W. Neither do I know how many other children that a gluten-free diet could help. I can only say that if you or someone close to you experiences a learning disability or unexplained gastro intentional issues or withdrawal symptoms when trying to eliminate wheat for a short time, it would be very worthwhile to follow a strict gluten-free diet for six months.
- Alexandra Blair. Wheat-free diet gives food for thought. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article444290.ece
- Hadjivassiliou M, Gibson A, Davies-Jones GA, Lobo AJ, Stephenson TJ, Milford-Ward A. (1996). Does cryptic gluten sensitivity play a part in neurological illness? Lancet. Feb 10;347(8998):369-71.