Medical surveys indicate that less than 2 percent of the US population has celiac disease or wheat allergies. These are the people who should be on gluten-free diets. Another 5 to 10 percent have a clinical gluten sensitivity, and benefit from a gluten-free diet. A UK study by NABIM (National Associations of British and Irish Millers) has found that the prevalence of these intolerances is 10 times less that it's perceived.
As you’ve probably noticed from tea-break chatter and supermarket aisles, far more individuals have diagnosed themselves as gluten-sensitive, and undertaken a gluten-free diet. Indeed, this new study has found that 41 percent of non-celiac-athletes follow a gluten-free diet much of the time. Of this group, 70 percent reported that they are endurance athletes.
“I can’t say I was surprised by these numbers,” co-author Dana Lis, a nutrition Ph.D., told RW US Newswire this week. “I saw a lot of it in my work with athletes before the London Olympics. I was more surprised at how strongly the athletes believed in the diet, without any scientific backing.”
About 10 percent of the 910 athletes who responded to the online survey were World Championships or Olympic medalists, but the majority were recreational athletes. Many began a gluten-free diet because they had gastrointestinal problems.
The paper divided non-celiac, gluten-free athletes into two groups: one practiced the gluten-free diet less than 50 percent of the time, and one more than 50 percent. Members of the second group were more likely to report improved exercise performance, decreased illness, decreased gastrointestinal distress, and improved body composition.
Remember: None of these athletes had a medical diagnosis indicating they should be on a gluten-free diet. And that’s a concern to Lis, from Australia’s University of Tasmania, and her co-researchers. They believe the reported results may result from a strong placebo effect, and that there are potential downsides to a gluten-free diet. A big one, for endurance athletes, may be lowered carbohydrate intake.
“Many athletes are self-diagnosing this condition when other factors may be the cause,” said Lis. “This could present risks. You’d face problems while traveling and competing abroad, you might not reach your optimal fueling, and you could be low in fibre, iron, some B vitamins, and certain probiotics.”
Lis would prefer that athletes with gastrointestinal problems seek other solutions before launching themselves into a gluten-free diet. In particular, she suggests a thorough medical work-up and an appointment with an experienced sports nutritionist.
“[Gastrointestinal] problems can be very complex, and it’s important to look at them systematically,” she said. “That’s the best way to ensure that underlying problems are not overlooked, and that solutions are successful for the long term.”