How to go gluten free… and why
In this blog we investigate gluten: what it is and why some people avoid it in their diet. Personal trainers and other fitness instructors will often work with clients who are following special diets, such as gluten free, and it’s helpful to have an understanding of the topic.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley, kamut and spelt. In kitchen cupboards, these ingredients tend to be seen in pasta, bread, pastries and cereals. However, gluten is also found as hydrolysed protein, used in processed foods and supplements – and even beer.
Why do people avoid gluten?
Gluten-free diets are normally followed by people diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or a wheat allergy.
Celiac disease – this is when the small intestine is hyper-sensitive to wheat and other products containing gluten and the villi of the digestive tract are damaged or destroyed. Untreated, it can be life threatening.
Gluten intolerance – subjects have some of the same symptoms as above but don’t test positive for celiac disease. Continuing to consume gluten can contribute to further problems and manifest other autoimmune disorders.
Wheat allergy – this is an allergic reaction to wheat rather than an auto-immune issue, with symptoms similar to other allergies, such as swelling or stomach pain.
Potential health benefits of gluten free
As well those who fall into one of the three categories listed above, many people today follow a gluten-free diet for perceived health benefits and a personal trainer may be asked for advice about gluten-free foods.
The symptoms attributed to gluten include bloating, stomach distension, constipation and/or diarrhea, cramping, anemia and bone or joint pain. When the digestive tract is affected, it can prevent the uptake of nutrients, causing bone mineral density loss and a low body mass index.
These issues can also have a knock-on effect on energy utilisation throughout the day, as digestive problems can cause an individual’s blood sugar levels to drop and spike. This can lead to decreased mental alertness and increased levels of stress, but it can also affect performance in exercise or sport.
If a personal trainer is working with a client who has these issues, they may struggle to ingest the right amount of proteins, sugars or fats before, during or after exercise, which can have a knock-on effect on recovery and performance. This is relevant to all activities from everyday pursuits to sporting performance.
Lack of studies
Although a fitness professional should be aware of issues surrounding gluten, they should also note that there is as yet little hard scientific evidence about the benefits of gluten free.
A recent article in the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Health & Fitness Journal (Vol 17, no 1), entitled Go Gluten-Free: Diets for Athletes and Active People by M Harris and N Meyer, states that:
“Anecdotal claims suggest that the GF [gluten-free] diet will reduce inflammation and improve performance. Unfortunately, these claims are testimonial based with limited research to support them.”
What are gluten-free foods?
If a personal trainer is working with a client who wishes to avoid gluten, they need to be aware of which foods are high in gluten, which are low in gluten and which are gluten free.
Foods high in gluten include: semolina wheat (pasta, bread, pastries) spelt, kamut, barley, rye and durum wheat.
Foods that may contain “hidden” gluten include: oats, chips and other fried foods, beer, bread, pastries, gravy, salad dressing, cakes and biscuits, sauces and canned soups, as well as food additives and preservatives.
Gluten-free foods include: rice, corn, quinoa, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, wine, and unprocessed meat, seafood, beans, seeds and nuts.
Another issue to be aware of is that foods that are marketed as gluten free often contain large amounts of high GI (glycemic index) sugars and tend not to be enriched with vitamins and minerals. This could mean a lack of micronutrients in the gluten-free diet.
Fitness professionals should also be aware of the possibility of cross-contamination when food manufacturers and restaurants do not have separate areas for food that contains gluten and gluten-free products.
A personal trainer should always encourage clients to follow established healthy eating guidelines, whether or not they are consuming foods that are marketed as gluten free.
It’s also wise for fitness instructors to refer clients to a specialist nutritionist or their GP if they are showing symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance.