Diets for Runners and Eating Gluten-Free
Image: Brian Klutch
Should You Go Gluten-Free?
Take a stroll through the grocery store and you'll notice an increasing amount of shelf space devoted to gluten-free foods, including cookies, crackers, and cereals. Eat at restaurants such as Chili's, P.F. Chang's, or Boston Market, and you can order gluten-free chicken-noodle stir-fry and chocolate cake for dessert. Add to this all the books and Web sites professing the benefits of gluten-free eating, and suddenly carb-loving runners can't help but wonder if a diet without gluten is worth biting into.
Going gluten-free is, without a doubt, essential for runners with celiac disease (CD) and gluten intolerance (GI), says Julie McGinnis, R.D., a dietitian who has GI and runs theglutenfreebistro.com. Both disorders can cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and in the case of CD, nutrient malabsorption; eliminating gluten prevents symptoms. But what about the rest of us? Can runners without CD or GI expect any health or performance benefits from giving up gluten—a protein in wheat, spelt, kamut, barley, and rye? It's a question athletes are asking. The Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team even eats gluten-free when racing, claiming it helps performance by easing inflammation and digestion.
But most runners shouldn't give up their bagels and pasta. Lara Field, R.D., a marathoner and dietitian who works with celiac patients at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago, says for healthy runners there is no evidence whatsoever that gluten-free eating offers any performance benefits over a balanced diet that contains gluten. "The theory that removing wheat from your diet is going to ease inflammation and digestion and speed exercise recovery just doesn't hold up for most," says Field.
Of course, you're doing yourself a favor if you replace heavily processed gluten-containing foods with more nutritious whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, says McGinnis. She points out that some of the most nutrient-dense whole grains (including buckwheat, amaranth, brown rice, teff, and quinoa) are naturally gluten-free and loaded with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.