Professional cyclists go gluten-free


Unlike cows, humans lack the enzymes in our saliva and stomach to fully break down and absorb gluten (to be found in wheat, barley and rye) and process it for nutritional use, so parts of the protein just get moved on to the small bowel in relatively large pieces. According to Dr Michelle Pietzak, a celiac expert at the University of Southern California, more than 50 different types of those fragments have been shown to cause adverse reactions in humans. Some people have an allergic reaction, some have celiac disease and some people just do not digest it well.

And this has relevance not just for ordinary mortals, but for endurance athletes, long trained to stoke up on truck loads of wheat based carbs to give them energy. But not so the Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team whose founder and CEO, Jonathan Garmin, much to the horror of his Tour de France team, switched them onto a wheat free diet. Garmin and his exercise physiologist Dr Allan Lim (now with Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack team) believed that gluten was actually responsible for many of the problems with which performance athletes struggle –  bloating, stiffness, and gastrointestinal distress – and that their riders would recover better from grueling stages by avoiding wheat. They also knew that the team could get all the carbs they needed by eating other foods. And they were right.

Team leader, Christian Vande Velde, the first team member to go gluten-free, was pleasantly surprised. “I just had all-around better digestion, and digestion is the biggest thing in utilizing the energy I consume.” Teammate Tom Danielson had a similar experience when he started following the diet during the Tour of Missouri in 2008. “My performance really improved a lot — there was definitely a correlation,” says Danielson. “I think that my digestion is better, and because of that my sleep is better and my recovery is better.”

Since the energy needs of elite athletes such as Vande Velde and Danielson are immense — in the Tour de France, cyclists will eat as much as 8,000 calories daily, more than three times what a moderately active man needs each day — to ensure that they ate adequately to supply their need, the team hired Colorado chef, Sean Fowler, who owns a restaurant in Spain. Fowler them served poultry and eggs as protein sources, fresh fruits and vegetables for vitamins, and a selection of rice, oats, corn and quinoa for carbs.

Athletes certainly do need carbohydrates, says Leslie Bonci, a sports dietitian for the Milwaukee Brewers. For active sportsmen, she recommends three grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day to maintain the energy substrate.

Jonathan Garmin and Garmin-Transitions’s team’s reliance on vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and fresh, well-prepared food is universally instructive. Many athletes who stop eating wheat, despite having no real problem digesting gluten, still experience weight loss and performance and digestion benefits from inadvertently dodging other dietary pitfalls. No bread, cookies, or hamburger buns usually translates to less sugar, salt, and processed foods spiked with chemical fillers.

Moreover, the diet does not have to be for always, but for use in periods of intense exertion – although some athletes may feel so much better ‘off the wheat’ that they stick with if even when not on the Tour.

Courtesy of Men’s Journal

Further Reading: Free ebook, Marianna Correa, Gluten Free Cycling Diet.


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