Concerns about Gluten-free diets for Fitness

There has been a trend for a few years with the promotion of the gluten-free diet being healthy for fitnss or athletes. The gluten free diet was initially created for people with celiac disorders, gluten-related disorders, allergies or intolerances. The popularity of gluten-free diet for fitness bothers me because cutting out gluten for a long term can negatively affect non-celiac people. The diet isn't perfect and it cuts out a major food group. For Celiac disease or all the other wheat/gluten pathologies require a gluten-free diet for life. Most people are convinced that gluten is "bad" but this only applies to "people with celiac disease who experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, weight loss and fatigue when consuming gluten", the Foundation for Celiac Disease points out. 

In the Journal of Physical Education and Sport® (JPES), Vol 20 (Supplement issue 4), (D'Angelo & Tafuri, 2020; D'Angelo & Cusano, 2020) states that "special diets, as gluten-free diet, have grown in popularity among athletes related to the belief that they confer health and weight management benefits compared to a more typical diet. Athletes who exclude certain foods or food groups may not meet sports nutrition guidelines for key nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, essential fatty acids, calcium, iron, vitamin D, and the B-vitamins. As a result, athletes are at increased risk for musculoskeletal injuries, iron-deficiency anemia, menstrual disturbances, hormonal imbalances, and immune suppression."

The study from D'Angelo & Cusano investigated the frequency, perceptions and beliefs surrounding Gluten Free diets. It found that in 942 non-celiac athletes, over 40% reported following a GFD at least 50% of the time (Lis et al, 2014). Startlingly, this group of non-celiac athletes mostly relied on self-diagnosis of a gluten-related disorder and subsequent self-treatment with a GFD

Some results that stood out to me from the "Gluten-free diets in athletes" study:
  • Although there is one study showing improved glucose metabolism and reduced obesity with gluten elimination in no celiac rodents, there is no scientific evidence to date that shows a Gluten Free diet positively influences elements of health or performance in nonclinical populations
  • Adopting a Gluten Free diet without appropriate nutrition counseling may be associated with increased expense (+242%), inadequate intake of B vitamins, fiber and iron, as well as compromised gut health through reduced beneficial gut bacteria populations.
  • Gluten does not appear to affect well-being in non-celiac athletes (Lis et al, 2015). Gibson & Muir (2013) have suggested that gluten itself may not be the sole nutrient regulating factor in the reported symptom improvement with a Gluten Free diet, but that the subsequent reduction in fructans and galacto-oligosaccarides (fermentable oligo-, di- and monosaccharides and polyols; FODMAPs) associated with gluten removal may be a modulating factor.
  • A Gluten Free diet can put an athlete at risk for low intakes of protein and micronutrient deficiencies (i.e., Bvitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and potassium).
  • In both normal and overweight celiac patients who adhered to a strict Gluten Free diet for 2 years, weight gain was observed
  • It may be more difficult to eat healthy on a glutenfree diet. A study (Fry et al, 2018) suggested that fats, saturated fats, sugars and salt were found more frequently in gluten-free foods than in gluten-containing foods in the UK. To give consistency and flavor to gluten-free foods, more fats and sugars are often added. Unnecessarily removing gluten from the diet may not bring any health or weight benefit.

  • Additionally, gluten-free breads contained less iron and more total fat than regular bread; however, saturated fat did not differ. For pasta, gluten-free products had higher carbohydrate content and lower fiber, sugar, iron and folate content (Kulai& Rashid, 2014).
  • GF products had consistently lower average protein content across all the three core food groups, in particular for pasta and breads (52 and 32% less)
  • In addition to a reduced nutritional profile of GF foods, consuming a GF diet has financial and psychological effects on Celiac Disease patients. The inability to purchase affordable food easily may result in Celiac Disease patients experiencing higher levels of depression and increased psychological stress regarding food consumption, especially in social situations.

Be careful out there with the food trends and research more before committing to a new diet plan. Try to consult with a doctor before doing the Gluten Free diet. 

D’ANGELO, S. and CUSANO, P. (2020) ‘Gluten-free diets in athletes’, Journal of Physical Education & Sport, 20, pp. 2330–2336. Available at: (Accessed: 22 January 2021).


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