I don’t have celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten (a protein found in bread, pasta and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye), but my internist says I am probably gluten-sensitive, a less serious condition that nonetheless can come with such symptoms as diarrhea, bloating and joint pain.
While there is no diagnostic test for gluten sensitivity, the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children estimates that about 6 percent of Americans fit the condition’s murky criteria: They don’t have celiac, but their symptoms are alleviated when they stop eating gluten.
Gluten-free diets are gaining popularity, with U.S. sales of these foods “reaching $4.2 billion in 2012, for a compound annual growth rate of 28 percent over the 2008-2012 period,” according to a report by the market research company Packaged Facts. “The conviction that gluten-free products are generally healthier is the top motivation for consumers of these products,” the report states.
It’s a striking shift, particularly among endurance athletes, who come from a carb-loading culture where pre-race pasta and post-race beer are as essential as the bib number on your back and the sneakers on your feet.
All that is changing now: The idea that an endurance athlete’s diet needs to include plenty of carbohydrates — whether gluten-filled spaghetti or gluten-free potatoes — is no longer gospel. “What we used to say to endurance athletes is that 60 to 70 percent of their daily intake should be from carbs,” says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Now, that’s unnecessary. If you’re getting 50 percent, that’s enough.”
Since cutting gluten out of my diet in August of last year, I’ve noticed a profound change: My digestion is gentler, my sleep is sounder, my energy level is more even. These benefits also seem to have led to improved athletic performance. Since going off gluten, I placed in a race for the first time in my adult life, won a small community biathlon and achieved a personal best in a 5K run. Most important, I felt good while doing it.
‘Gluten is useless’
A couple of years ago, few of us even knew what gluten was. Now, entire grocery aisles and cookbooks are devoted to ways to avoid it (you can even get gluten-free Communion wafers). Celebrity athletes are helping fuel the gluten-free lifestyle: Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the Garmin cycling team and top tennis player Novak Djokovic have all been vocal about its benefits.