IS A VOLUNTARY GLUTEN-FREE DIET A GOOD CHOICE FOR CYCLISTS?
ONE IN 133 PEOPLE — OR 1.5 million Americans — may suffer from a sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat grain, a group of researchers at the University of Maryland discovered in 2003. Fast-forward six years: Grocery aisles now burst with gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based staples such as pasta, bread, cookies — even beer. High-profile athletes such as Garmin-Slipstream rider Christian Vande Velde openly ascribe to a gluten-free diet. And the FDA is now developing standards for voluntary gluten-free labeling, similar to those used for organic foods.
For the average cyclist, gluten-free eating may not offer any benefits over a healthy, well-rounded diet. In fact, according to Julie Miller Jones, PhD, a nutritionist and advisory board member of the Grain Foods Foundation, gluten-free diets often lack a host of nutrients typically found in whole-grain wheat products such as vitamins B and D, calcium, iron, zinc, folate and magnesium. And because cyclists rely on the carbohydrates found in many wheat-based foods to pound out miles, it's important to know if you're a good candidate to go gluten free, or if you should just keep digging into that linguini.
Gluten sensitivity is an umbrella term for three distinct wheat-related ailments: celiac disease, wheat allergies and nonceliac gluten intolerance, says Cynthia Keefer of the Gluten Intolerance Group. Celiac disease is a genetically predisposed condition in which gluten causes an inflammatory reaction, often resulting in gastrointestinal distress. A blood test can diagnose that problem.
People who suffer from a wheat allergy, one of the eight most common food allergens, produce a histamine response that can result in a skin rash, breathing difficulty and nausea. A standard allergy test clears most people of a potential reaction to wheat.
While nonceliac gluten intolerance has yet to gain widespread recognition, it's commonly accepted as a treatable condition among alternative practitioners such as chiropractors. (Vande Velde's gluten-free diet originated with his chiropractor.) Currently, the only way to determine if you suffer from nonceliac gluten intolerance is by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Celiac disease can present itself at any age, and symptoms range from severe to hardly noticeable. Pro triathlete Desiree Ficker started having stomach problems in her early 20s while running track at the University of Alabama — "During an Ironman I'd have to stop up to six times," she says — but she wasn't diagnosed with celiac disease until she was 29.
That year, 2006, Ficker had her best season yet, placing second in the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. Ficker says she thinks the gluten-free diet might benefit even people without a diagnosed medical condition. "It does end up being a lot healthier because it forces you to stay away from overly processed foods," she says. "I learned how to cook for myself so things don't taste like sawdust. I don't know if I lost any weight on the scale, but I definitely got a lot leaner."