Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gluten and Pro Cycling

Fans of pro cycling will know that today is Stage Four of the Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France. Yesterday, VeloNews, a magazine about competitive cycling, published an interesting article about rider Christian Vande Velde. The guy is a heavyweight in the world of pro cycling...he placed fifth overall at last year's Tour de France, to name just one of his many accomplishments. (He was also wearing the pink jersey in this year's Giro, indicating he was the lead rider, until a crash yesterday caused him to pull out of the race with two broken ribs and a back injury.)

The VeloNews article, to my astonishment, was about gluten and Vande Velde's diet. In short, VdV had largely abandoned traditional bread and pasta in favor of gluten-free alternatives. (To be clear, his adjusted diet would be more accurately described as a low-gluten diet than a no-gluten diet.) His rationale was that gluten in the diet is related to inflammation in the body. Inflammation, in turn, affects performance...stamina, peak power, recovery time, etc. In VdV's eyes, a gluten-free diet equates with an anti-inflammatory diet.

This link between gluten and inflammation caused me to raise an eyebrow. My good friend, Jess, has been on a gluten-free diet for the same reason as she has battled a long recovery from hip surgery. The VeloNews article was the second time I'd seen gluten linked to inflammation. It's an interesting way to view the gluten-free diet, since the vast majority of the time we come at it from a much different perspective...Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance...where it's all about autoimmune disorders or gastrointestinal trouble or digestion and nutrition. When we start talking about inflammation, on the other hand, it provides a whole other point of entry to the gluten-free diet for people (especially athletes) who might otherwise not consider it.

The only part of the article that rubbed me the wrong way was VdV's concluding quote: "You know, I might look back in 10 years and say ‘I can’t believe that I believed in that fad’, but right now I think it is the right track for me to be on.”

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the gluten-free diet is not a fad. Sure, VdV was thinking about it in terms of inflammation and its link to performance in pro cycling. And perhaps from that perspective the gluten-free or low-gluten diet has gained popularity (and may lose popularity in the future...time will tell). But for the rest of us, we're gluten-free for a much different reason. One that's with us for the long haul.

- Pete


glutenfreeforgood said...


I had read the article about Christian and feel that GF will be a trend with athletes. I've been doing this for almost a decade and I personally see the anti-inflammatory differences, but I also have celiac, so it makes sense. BUT, to make a long (sciency) story short, I believe most people looking for improved performance would benefit. Maybe in that case you could call it a fad. I worked with a woman who was a triathlete (recently diagnosed with celiac) and there are GF grains that make so much more sense for increased performance, anyway. Think Ethiopian runners and teff. She did much better once we got her on track (bad pun).

Good post. We need to talk.

GFE--gluten free easily said...

The inflammatory properties of gluten and sugar are fairly well known, particularly among the alternative practitioners. Going gluten free with reduced inflammation can be seen by looking at many folks (my pre-gf photos show inflammation totally in my face and body). Some lose weight naturally, some see acne eliminated, joint pain goes away, and so on. Of course, one could say that it's just the elimination of gluten, but it's the elimination of gluten because it's been causing the inflammation in many cases--if that makes sense.

I am convinced my return to good cholesterol numbers is partly due to the decrease in inflammation in my body ... from no gluten and much less sugar by eating real food. And, I suspect that some folks whose cholesterol shoots up when they go gf is partially due to the inflammation caused by consumption of all the gf specialty products with their increased sugar (and preservatives, etc.) vs real food.

I suspect that particular athlete will have some negative issues that surprise him when he returns to eating gluten. That will show that he is gluten sensitive. The fact that gluten is the only protein that our bodies do not fully metabolize (per Drs. Green and Fasano) makes it worth eliminating or curtailing for most folks.

Thanks for this post, Pete!


peterbronski said...

Hi Melissa... thanks for the bad pun! Those are always welcome in my neck of the woods. =) I'll be very interested to indeed see if GF becomes a "fad" with athletes. I also wonder how much it will catch on, since I think for many athletes the idea of carbo loading with pasta the night before a race is deeply ingrained "wisdom." (Giving up the post race free beer would be a hard sell, too, I think.)

Hi Shirley... Yeah, I think the gluten-inflammation link is an interesting one. So often, malnutrition and being under weight are associated with celiac disease. But I know many people (including myself) who lose weight, not gain it, on a GF diet. Some of that for sure has to do with other changes in my diet (healthy whole foods). But some of it may also be due to a reduction in inflammation. I know that I've seen big improvements in my endurance performance racing...

Cheers, Pete

myharvestamerica1 said...

My wife Liliana, founder of Nantucket Pasta Goddess, has gone gluten- free with all of her pasta. She only makes traditional pasta on special order. I have gone gluten-free due to LSL(late stage lymes)disease and was able to cut back on anti-inflamatories!
I do not believe this will be a fad but a change in my way of eating for life.