Josh Coe discovered his gluten sensitivity the hard way. He labored through the weight room with zip for energy, and had dark circles engraved under his eyes and a weight that ballooned from his normal 200 pounds all the way to 240. At a loss to explain his diminished condition, his friends suggested he examine his diet. “They noticed that when I drank one beer, I would have a hangover the next day. When I ate a pancake breakfast, sometimes I would throw up afterward,” says Coe, 34, who has been lifting for nearly 20 years.
A quick self-analysis pointed the finger at gluten-rich wheat. Any foods containing it made him sick, gassy and irritable. So he cut it out: No more wheat. And just like that, he could stick to hard, hourlong sessions four days a week and soon shrank his physique back to a lean and chiseled 200 pounds. “Once I stopped putting the poison in my body, I was able to heal and get the most out of my training,” says Coe. “I could go through both the bulk-up and cut-up phases with no physical or digestive issues.”
You’ve heard about going gluten-free (GF), probably even read about it and might know someone who follows this eating plan that has become the latest diet craze. After all, gluten-free has become big business. Entire aisles of grocery stores are filled with gluten-free products and many eateries have “GF” next to items on their menus. Sales of GF foods hit $4.2 billion in 2012, a 3 percent increase from 2010, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts. Odds are there’s a gluten-free choice for almost anything wheat-related, and this makes going gluten-free easier than ever before.
But can gluten-free really help you hit your mark in the weight room? “Strength athletes are always looking for an extra 1 to 2 percent to help them out. And constructing a diet around a potential food allergy or intolerance can often give them the edge they need,” says pro bodybuilder and coach Layne Norton, PhD.
Before you dive into a gluten-free lifestyle, you need to know the full story behind gluten. Gluten is a combination of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, found in the endosperm of wheat (including spelt, kamut, farro and bulgur) as well as barley and rye. It's ground into flour used to make bread, pizza, cereal, pasta, pastries and cookies. Gluten is what gives these foods their doughy elasticity and chewy texture. Then there are the sneaky sources you wouldn't necessarily link to gluten, such as processed soups, hot dogs, salad dressings, soy sauce and (gulp) beer.
Gluten isn’t bad from a nutritional perspective. It becomes an issue when people cannot properly digest it, a condition called celiac disease. An estimated one in every 133 people, or 1.8 million, has celiac disease, and another 1.4 million have it but don’t know it. In fact, a recent study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that almost 80 percent of people with celiac disease don’t yet realize it. With celiac disease, your immune system attacks the undigested gluten proteins. Antibodies go into action, which flatten the villi, the tiny fingers in the small intestines that soak up nutrients from food. The lining of your small intestine becomes inflamed. This domino effect sets off an avalanche of aches and pains — about 300 symptoms have been identified — with the most prevalent being diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and intense fatigue.
Still, celiac disease is somewhat rare. A more common and even more misunderstood gluten issue is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Between 5 and 10 percent of the population have NCGS, according to the National Institutes of Health, University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. People with NCGS — like Coe — also suffer similar symptoms as celiac disease, but it’s due to a negative reaction to digesting gluten. The body can digest gluten, but at a painful price.
A 2012 report in BMC Medicine found that people with NCGS also tend to suffer from headaches, mental fogginess, irritability, joint pain, and numbness in the legs, arms or fingers. Symptoms often appear hours or days after gluten has been ingested. Fighting fatigue? Battling chronic stomach issues? Feeling bloated and heavy? Gluten might be the problem.
The solution for both conditions is the same: Remove some or all of the gluten from your diet so the gut can heal and begin to absorb nutrients again. “When this happens, your body can efficiently build and repair muscle and other necessary functions during training,” says sports nutritionist Jennifer Vimbor, MS, RD, LD.
Still, NCGS is not as black and white as celiac disease. If you have celiac disease, going completely gluten-free is the only way to get relief. With NCGS, you may have a problem digesting high amounts of gluten, you may have trouble with certain gluten foods or you may simply be sensitive to one particular food. It’s no wonder that science has trouble grappling with NCGS. “There is a tight definition of celiac disease, but gluten intolerance has been a moving target,” says Daniel A. Leffler, MD, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
A simple blood test (although not 100 percent accurate) and biopsy of the small intestine can determine if you have celiac disease. NCGS is trickier because there’s no clear-cut test. Instead, if you believe you have gluten sensitivity, you can adopt a full GF diet as with celiac. Or you can you try an elimination diet, a trial-and-error process in which you eliminate a specific gluten food or group, like pasta or bread, and monitor your reaction.
Here’s how to do it: Keep a detailed account of what food you cut out, how much of it you usually eat and when (lunch, snack, dinner, pre- or postworkout, etc.). Then track how you feel for the hours and days after eliminating that food. Do you notice less cramping? Do you feel less wiped out after a hard workout? If there are no significant changes, try another gluten food and follow the same pattern. Eventually, you should be able to identify the trigger gluten food(s).
If cutting out an entire item is too daunting, try reducing your normal amount by one-half. Often, this change can be enough to produce a positive result. Your timing may also be an issue. Do your symptoms erupt right before or after a training session? “Eating too much and too close to workouts can cause blood to pool and insulin to spike, both of which can cause gastric distress and create havoc on energy levels,” says Jim White, RD, ACSM, HFS.
With an elimination diet, you may just find that poor eating habits are the real problem. “I had a client who thought he had a gluten allergy because he always battled bloating,” says Norton. “It turns out that it wasn’t the gluten that was his problem, but rather that he binged on doughnuts and pizzas. By allowing him to consume it in moderation, he was able to stop binging and the bloating ceased.”
Gluten and Iron
But what about the regular Joe who doesn’t have celiac disease or NCGS. Can going GF give you an extra edge?
First, a few facts: Despite the marketing ploys, gluten-free is not a “miracle” diet. It cannot directly make you lift more or longer. “The science is not there. It’s just anecdotal information,” says White. What GF can do, however, is help you eat cleaner and break your appetite for crappy, high-fat processed foods. Going full-throttle GF means skipping pizza, pasta, bread, Dagwood-sized sandwiches, cookies and muffins. So if you struggle with weight management, GF can help trim those extra pounds and keep you at an optimal size for training and performances.
However, GF does not mean you’re a slave to gluten-free substitutes found in a box on a grocery shelf. Gluten-free pastas, pizza and breads can often contain more calories, but no more nutrients, than their non-GF counterparts. Instead, going GF pushes you into the gold-star rating of healthy eating: fruits and vegetables; legumes, proteins, eggs and milk products; and brown rice and other whole grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, millet and wild rice. In this way, going GF helps feed your body more of the natural good stuff.
Keep in mind that GF is not a green light to overindulge. Yes, your choices are healthier, but even these foods can trigger digestive problems if you’re not careful. “You’re going to be just as bloated and miserable by consuming 1,000 calories from gluten-free fruit as you would from pasta,” says Norton. If there’s one nutritional problem or downside with going GF, it’s fiber. Whole wheat is a major source of dietary fiber, which your bowels need to work properly. Fiber helps regulate your digestive system and ensure proper absorption. “The average American diet is deficient in fiber,” says Norton. “Men need about 35 grams of fiber a day, which is often tough to hit, especially if you reduce or eliminate quick-to-fix fiber-rich foods such as bread, cereal and pasta.”
Yet this is an easy fix. To get the fiber you need, simply increase your intake of high-fiber raspberries, strawberries and apples, as well as lentils, black and lima beans, and vegetables like broccoli (1 cup steamed equals 5 grams). Or reach for gluten-free grains such as quinoa, millet and amaranth. (See “Great Grains” on page 47.) When your digestive system is at prime operation, you can better absorb the protein, carbs, vitamins, minerals and amino acids you need to feed muscle and build mass. You’ll feel stronger and more energetic for training, which leads to more productive workouts and quicker gains.
A big part of going gluten-free is just being more mindful with your nutrition. “You have to read labels and be more savvy about what you consume. You have to review the ingredients for additives that might have gluten,” says Coe. “Gluten-free is not a diet, but a lifestyle. You have to live it in order for it to work for you.”
The end result is that GF can teach you to cut out the junk and be more diligent about how you fuel yourself. Going gluten-free isn’t easy; it takes discipline and keen planning. But much like your training, if you put in the time and dedication, you’ll probably see — and in this case, feel — the results.
Gluten-Free Fat Loss
A current joke is that people who claim to be gluten-free for health reasons are really just cutting gluten-heavy carbs to shed pounds. But the weight loss associated with dropping gluten from the menu may not be related to carb calories at all.
A recent study in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed that when two groups of rats were fed high-fat diets containing the same number of calories, but one group was placed on a gluten-fee regimen, the GF group showed a reduction in weight gain. Scientists contribute it to an up-regulation in hormones that are responsible for burning fat stores. The gluten-free group also experienced reduced markers of inflammation and insulin resistance.
While non-celiac gluten sensitivity can’t be measured with a test, you might identify a food allergy that’s tied to gluten. There are two ways, and both are cheap and can be administered by your doctor:
Blood Test. This measures your immune system’s response to particular foods. It checks the amount of allergy-type antibodies in your bloodstream, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.
Skin Prick. Think one type of food is the culprit? This can determine your body’s reaction to it. A small amount of the suspected food is placed on the skin of your forearm or back. Your skin is then pricked with a needle and a tiny amount of the food is inserted beneath the surface. If you’re allergic, you will develop a raised bump or other inflammatory reaction.