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Is a gluten free diet the sport person's secret weapon?


Well this is interesting! Sports people seem to be benefiting from cutting gluten grains out of their diets. And in cutting gluten grains like wheat they also eliminate a host of other ‘nasties’ like Wheat Germ Agglutinin, Gliadin, Gliadomorpin, Aspartic- and glutamic acid, phytic acid and Enzyme inhibitors. Read this new article from Dr Mercola “3 Ounces of This a Day May Be Harming Your Brain”

A while back we heard about Novak Djokovic changing to a gluten free diet after discovering he was gluten sensitive, and consequently improving his game:

The Diet That Shook Up Tennis? Starch Madness: Novak Djokovic’s Domination of the Sport Has Coincided With His Gluten-Free Turn

And news to hand – has just won the Wimbledon title

And now – news just in from the The Tour de France 2011 – stage two:  Thor Hushovd took the yellow jersey after Garmin-Cervelo won the team time trial. And I have just read (thanks to Twitter peeps) they are on a gluten free / very close to paleo diet. Why? “The advantage of a gluten-free diet is that it is anti-inflammatory, meaning the diet helps the body’s natural mending process.” This is from an article is written in http://www.slipstreamsports.com. which I have posted further down the page. I’ve highlighted passages of interest. Instead of gluten grains – the team eat rice plus fruit and veggies for their carbs. According to Paul Jaminet (Perfect Health Diet) rice is a non toxic grain – it does not have the anti-nutrient, gut irritating issues of other grains.

Another food group eaten in the team’s diet are those high in nitrates. From this article in Peak Performance Online :

Sports nutrition: is dietary nitrate the key to enhanced endurance performance? Dietary nitrate can aid mental and physical performance for athletes.

“…However, recent research suggests that, far from being harmful, nitrate could actually be beneficial for health. This is because once consumed, nitrate can be readily converted to nitrite in the body, which can then be further converted to nitric oxide (NO). One of the great breakthroughs in recent years is the discovery that NO is an incredibly important signalling molecule in the body and vitally important for the health of the cardiovascular system (12). For example, one key function is to facilitate vasodilation (widening) in blood vessels, promoting increased blood flow and regulating blood pressure”

In a this study-  Acute Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Improves Cycling Time Trial Performance – mentioned in the above article, beetroot juice was given to cyclists to test whether nitric oxide increased power output, and found those given beetroot juice vs  a placebo without nitric oxide, significantly increased mean PO for the same VO2 during the 4-km and 16.1-km time trial.

The Beetroot juice effect of the study is also written up in ScienceDaily (July 1, 2011)

Research Reveals New Secret Weapon for Tour De France: Beetroot Juice

“For the study, nine club-level competitive male cyclists were asked to compete in time trials over 4km (2.5 mile) and 16.1km (10 mile). All the riders were asked to do each time trial twice. Each time they drank half a litre of beetroot juice beforehand. On one occasion they had normal beetroot juice, on the other occasion — unbeknown to the triallists — the beetroot juice had a key ingredient, nitrate, removed.

The researchers monitored athletes’ VO2 levels (showing the amount of oxygen consumed) during exercise to ensure that the cyclists worked at maximum effort on each occasion.

Results showed that when the cyclists drank ordinary beetroot juice they had a higher power output (measured in watts) for the same level of effort — suggesting their muscles and cardio-vascular system were being more efficient.

On average, riders were 11 seconds (2.8%) quicker over the 4km distance and 45 seconds (2.7%) faster over the 16.1km distance.”

“The nitrate has two physiological effects. Firstly, it widens blood vessels, reducing blood pressure and allowing more blood flow. Secondly, it affects muscle tissue, reducing the amount of oxygen needed by muscles during activity. The combined effects have a significant impact on performing physical tasks, whether it involves low-intensity or high-intensity effort.”

Another interesting feature of the cyclists meals – is that every meal appears to be a mixed macronutrient meal – not a pure high carbohydrate meal. For example they eat eggs with their breakfast oatmeal. In my earliest work as a nutritionist, I taught Zone Diet principles, which primarily focuses on eating a balance of macro-nutrients at each meal. This has a big effect on stabilising blood sugar and providing protein to aid in repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. A New Zealand triathlete Shorty Clark achieved a huge boost in his rankings from 65 to 15 internationally in his age group when he shifted from a very high carbohydrate to the Zone diet. He wrote about it here: Zone Diet testimonials. (3rd testimonial down) In Dr Sears earliest version of the Zone diet eating grains was discouraged, and Shorty’s diet had minimal grain carbohydrates. (Of Note: Shorty has more recently changed to a Paleo / Zone diet with no grains, and is noticing reduced joint inflammation and good recovery)

From http://www.slipstreamsports.com:

Feature: Tour of California Cuisine from the Clif Bar Food Mobile

Mark Johnson (photography)

Walk into a team hotel at the Tour of California at dinnertime and the Garmin-Cervélo table is empty. While the other teams load their plates from buffet tables then gravitate to their assigned seats, to find the Garmin-Cervélo boys you have to go to the parking lot.

This year the team brought along the Clif Bar Food Mobile to prepare breakfast and dinner for the riders. Every morning and evening the team congregates in the team bus where they feast on meals prepared by the husband and wife culinary team of Barbara and Chris Grealish.

Barbara, who trained at Johnson and Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Denver, Colorado, says all the meals are gluten free. That means those traditional staples of the endurance athlete diet—bread and pasta—are not on the menu.

The advantage of a gluten-free diet is that it is anti-inflammatory, meaning the diet helps the body’s natural mending process.

And that’s very important to elite athletes like the Garmin-Cervélo riders who spend days building their fitness by tearing themselves down through racing and training and then adapting to those work loads with rest and nutrition.

Instead of pasta, rice is a common denominator in many meals. That and fresh fruit and vegetables. But just because it’s rice does not mean it’s boring.

“Everyone thinks that if it’s gluten-free it’s going to be like cardboard,” Barbara notes with a smile. “It’s not. Like tonight, we are having curry chicken.” A big believer in fresh spices bought from a spice store in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado, she says rice is a fabulous foundation for a colorful flavor palate of meats, fish and vegetables.

Barbara says while her formal culinary education gave her understanding of food’s nutritional value restaurant cooking can put more focus on taste than nutrition. After all, when you go out for a special dinner prepared by a highly-trained chef, you are not there to count calories, so pile on the beurre blanc!

Of the difference between preparing food for the Garmin-Cervélo team and what she might prepare in a restaurant she says, “This is a totally different angle of cooking. You are more committed not just to flavor and taste, but nutritional value.”

While teams inside the race hotel might be eating rubber chicken and overcooked pasta, in the Garmin-Cervélo bus a typical evening meal might include rice and yams plus a meat dish or salmon. There is always a big green salad and a side salad of beets and oranges.

Along with beets, kale, spinach and broccoli are commonly found on the Garmin-Cervélo dinner table. The Grealishes point out that these foods, as well as pumpkin seeds and blueberries, are nitrate rich.

According to team sports scientist Robbie Ketchell, it’s a well documented finding that the nitrates in these fruits and vegetables can improve sports performance. Ketchell explains that Nitrates, “reduce oxygen demands on skeletal muscle performing a specific task. In laymen’s terms, they reduce the demand on muscle to produce energy.”

At breakfast on race days, the riders generally start with a big bowl of oatmeal then move on to a couple of eggs or an omelet. Some will top that off with a second bowl of dry cereal with rice milk. And of course, there is always coffee to get things rolling.

“In the morning I do a big pot of oatmeal,” Barbara explains. “Then I have and egg station and I do eggs to order.” Once the last egg order is done, “I get off and I start working on that night’s meal.”

As far as the rider’s tastes, “They are pretty easy,” Barbara says. Before the Tour of California she emails the riders to canvas their preferences and builds a menu from there. Dave Zabriskie is a vegan,  and the couple says that preparing foods that fit his diet have encouraged them to explore new culinary territories. Because the foundation of the meals is already fresh fruits and vegetables, Barbara says the only thing she sometimes has to vary for DZ is the main course.

(JT – Note: but eats salmon twice a week, and 4 rice protein shakes a day, more here: Riding the Tour De Vegetable. The questions I have are – what did he take out of his diet that was causing issues? What other supplements does he need to take to make the vegan diet work? Will the vegan diet eventually cause problems like others find?)

The couple cooks using a stove in the Clif Bar Food Mobile plus two propane-powered camp stove burners they set up outside. After each meal, they load all their dishes in a bike-mounted Burley trailer. Chris then pedals the load of soiled plates and pans to the hotel kitchen for cleaning.

June 15th 2011 – An new article in Outside magazine on gluten sensitivity and sports performance: Are You too Sensitive? Being gluten free could give you a boost in performance.

July 29th Update: Not only are Team Garmin-Cervélo on a diet that reduces inflammation, they also take Dr Sears Zone supplements – specifically Zone OmegaRx, Polyphenol Plus, and Zone Shakes (their recovery drinks). http://www.zonediet.com/tour-de-france


  1. am an ardent cyclist and while we all know that cycling is a good way to get the pounds off what happens if you want to push up the performance beyond just losing some weight? I would very much recommend you read Monique Ryan’s “Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.” The 2nd edition of this book came out in 2007 and from what I see it remains the Gold Standard for anyone interested in this subject.

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