By Brooke Schohl, MS RD

Should non-celiac athletes go gluten-free? The answer isn’t cut and dry. We go through the pros and cons of living with and without gluten.

“Gluten-free” used to be a diet followed exclusively by celiacs, people with an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that requires completely eliminating gluten from the diets. In 2012, reported 1.8 million celiac Americans and 1.6 million individuals who follow a gluten free diet without a celiac diagnosis.

Today, many non-celiac endurance athletes have begun to adopt this eating style. Some say they remove gluten from their diet to control weight. Others follow the diet to reduce inflammation.

Regardless the reason, the question is: Should non-celiac athletes go gluten-free? The answer isn’t cut and dry. There are pros and cons. Consider both to know if a gluten-free diet is right for you.

The Pros

Shifts the Focus Back to Whole: Eliminating wheat, oats, barley and rye helps reduce processed food intake when done correctly. Wheat is found in foods such as bread, pasta, pastries, cereals, pancakes, pretzels, snack mixes and crackers. It’s also hiding in items like salad dressing, marinades, seasonings, soups and alcoholic beverages.

Although it’s important for endurance athletes to include adequate amounts of carbohydrate in their diets, consumption of gluten-filled grains is not required. There are plenty of non-gluten carbohydrate sources, including fruit, sweet potatoes, legumes, dairy products and grains like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and brown rice. Following a gluten-free diet can promote the consumption of more nutrient-dense, whole-food choices.

Reduces GI Distress, Reduces Inflammation: Gluten can trigger an inflammatory response in the body among celiacs and non-celiacs alike, according to The American Journal of Gastroenterology. Tummy troubles and training-induced inflammation are prevalent among endurance athletes. For many athletes, elimination of gluten products improves both issues and therefore leads to a boost in performance.

One theory behind the explosion of gluten intolerance in recent years is that we’re over-consuming wheat, oats, barley and rye. As a result, gluten resistance can become a possibility even for non-celiac individuals. At this time, these findings are mainly testimonial. The ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal recommends more research be conducted in this area.

Eliminates Intolerance Risk: There are varying degrees of gluten intolerance/sensitivity, and states that 1 in 3 people are at least mildly gluten intolerant. They may have fewer side effects than a true celiac, but gluten protein still wreaks havoc on their bodies. Cutting gluten from the diet eliminates any health risks associated with gluten consumption among individuals who have sensitivities to the protein.

The Cons

Lack of Nutritional Value: Today’s grocery store shelves are lined with an array of gluten-free products—everything from pancake mixes and bagels to crackers and cookies. The problem is the flours used to manufacture these products result in calorie-dense, nutrient-lacking final products.

The most common wheat replacement ingredients include rice, corn, potato, cassava and soy, according to the International Journal of Food Sciences & Nutrition. The Journal of Cereal Science reports that the most common gluten-free flour made is (white) rice flour. All of these flours are inferior in nutrient composition to whole-wheat flour. Remember: The gluten-free stamp on food does not guarantee high nutritional value, according to Trends in Food Science & Technology.

Potential Weight Gain: Many gluten-free products are higher in calories than their gluten-containing counterparts due to the type of flours used. As a result, unwanted pounds can become a factor for athletes. For those opting to eat gluten free in order to lose weight, this is a double whammy.

Expense: Orowheat whole-wheat bread costs $2 compared to Udi’s gluten-free bread at $6. These foods add up quickly, especially for endurance athletes on a tight budget.

In Sum

Endurance athletes can benefit from gluten-free eating when the focus shifts away from glutinous packaged items and instead emphasizes high-quality, nutrient-dense whole food choices. And if you’re purchasing a packaged gluten-free food product, carefully read the label. Choose whole-grain, gluten-free foods or those containing brown rice rather than white rice.