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Should Athletes Go Gluten Free?

sourdough bread


Gluten is a hard-to-digest protein found in many whole grains and cereals – and is often hidden in processed foods as binders, starch and fillers. A 2009 study from Gastroenterology comparing the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people today found that the incidences of full-blown celiac disease increased by 400 percent during that time period.

I can tell you first hand from our clinical practice that gluten can wreck havoc on the digestive system. In fact, the majority of cases that I come across that include inflammation and digestive disorders have gluten and cow dairy as the root cause. We simply take people off gluten, use fermented goat dairy like yogurt or kefir in the place of cow, and people’s digestive tracts finally begin to heal. But what about athletes? Does it improve performance? Let’s look at a review of the literature.

  • Dr. Allen Lim reported his riders felt less bloated, lighter, less puffy, less gastrointestinal distress and less inflammation.
  • The tennis player Novak Djokovic famously won 39 games in a row after switching to a gluten-free diet.
  • Elite runner Ryan Hall ran the fastest marathon ever by an American in 2011 after switching to a gluten free diet.
  • Professional triathlete Heather Wurtele eliminated GI distress after switching to gluten-free diet (Triathlete, 2011).
  • One study showed pain, bloating, irregular stool consistency and tiredness with the ingestion of gluten in people without celiac disease. (Biesiekierski et al., 2011).
  • GI distress greatly adversely impacts performance. Racing and training puts a significant impact on GI system (Ho, 2009). Removing the inflammatory stressor of gluten, can decrease distress.

I have spent many years thinking about this subject in regards to athletes, and I have come up with a few theories. First, without question I believe that gluten can strain the digestive system and lead to a host of inflammatory conditions. Anything that strains the digestive system will affect your energy level and ability to think.

When you take gluten out however, you begin to shift your diet towards gluten-free products – which in my opinion – are worthless. Many are rice, bean or nut flour based with a long list of fillers. If you crave baked goods, you may even start using raw nuts and nut flour heavily – evident in the current Paleo-diet craze – which in itself may prove to cause the same type of harm as gluten in the long run. Nuts have potent enzyme inhibitors that are only neutralized by soaking and fermenting. And like gluten, nuts will strain the digestive system to the point of abdominal pain and fatigue.

The wheat today is also a complete foreigner to the emmer and einkorn wheat of our Neolithic ancestors. There are now 25,000 varieties of wheat, and many of these bred to have a higher gluten content. A similar theory has been floated regarding dairy and the different breeding of cows, most notably the modern Holstein.

We can even look at fruit today, which have also been bred to be sweeter and higher in fructose, and look very different than their ancestors. Sweetness was not a trait we started out with during the sour and bitter flavors of early fruits and vegetables, but it was bred to match the humans desire for sweet. Now we are looking at excess fructose in the diet as a major cause of obesity and even fueling cancer. I won’t even go into the abomination that are GMO’s. But if there is something that past humans have proven when it comes to making food healthier, it’s that our preparation is the key.

The Preparation of Our Ancestors is Very Important

So what do gluten and nuts have in common? We are neglecting the traditional preparation techniques used for thousands of years that remedied these problems long ago. It’s not just gluten that has caused problems over the years. In the past, the Indians found that acorns were toxic unless they were soaked and drained until the water ran clear. In Asia, soybeans were not considered fit for consumption unless they were fermented, often up to a year. Corn caused a disease called pellagra in corn dominated diets unless it was soaked with lime first, making niacin available.

What humans did with rye and wheat to make it more digestible – as with many other foods- was to ferment it. One study published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that when wheat bread was thoroughly fermented, it reduced gluten levels from roughly 75,000 parts per million to 12—a level that technically qualifies as gluten-free.1

A baker in Santa Monica whose popularity is growing to the mythical popularity of Thor has a sign at the farmer’s market that reads “ROMAN SOLDIERS HAD ONLY SOURDOUGH BREAD TO GET PROTEIN.” He explains to his customers the scientific reasons why people who normally cannot eat gluten can eat his bread. He ferments his bread for a week up to one month, reducing the gluten content, increasing the probiotic, enzyme and b-vitamin content and eliminating phytic acid which blocks calcium, magnesium and zinc. He uses wild yeast from the environment instead of baker’s yeast, and a sour bread is produced that people must collectively recognize as the bread of their ancestors.

My theory is that the ubiquitous amount of improperly prepared gluten from a grain-dominated processed food society has created damage to the digestive system, and created an epigenetic and degenerative effect on each new generation. If our wheat has changed, then we either need to seek out original varieties and cultivate them again, or ferment these grains for longer durations to reduce the gluten present.

I think that a universal opinion is that bread is delicious and people truly miss it when it’s gone, and it can be a healthy addition to an athletes diet. For this reason, I only recommend using traditional sourdough rye or wheat (einkorn is the first choice) and to get a majority of your carbohydrates from vegetables and fruits. Can you go gluten-free while following PaleoEdge? Yes, absolutely. But the athlete’s dilemma is if it’s realistic to follow a strictly Paleolithic diet. If you have trouble keeping weight on, you travel, or have very little time to cook, you may find yourself very hungry all the time. If you have to follow a gluten-free diet due to having celiac, beware of the trap of loading up on gluten-free processed foods that will lead to unwanted weight gain and poor nutrition.



2 Responses to Should Athletes Go Gluten Free?

  • Could you please give me a link to that 2007 study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology? I’d like to take a look at it.


  • Hi Chrystal,
    I added the link to the study under sources. I am actually making a 48 hour sourdough with Einkorn wheat right now for the first time.

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