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by Chris Tuttle
As most of us are aware, the gluten-free craze has hit the bodybuilding community. Many bodybuilders are avoiding or limiting gluten for fear of generating an inflammatory response in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Diet gurus are popularizing the theory that gluten causes intestinal inflammation and this inflammation will then make it more difficult to get in shape for a show or inhibit their growth potential. Is there any truth to this? Are we all allergic to gluten like someone with celiac disease or do we all have sensitivity to gluten that could be preventing us from getting shredded and growing muscle?
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that affects the villi in the small intestines. This often causes malabsorption issues with key nutrients from foods. Only 1% of the population actually has celiac disease. However, up to 83% of people who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other GI disorders. Some symptoms of celiac disease are bloating, gas, diarrhea, skin rashes, constipation, sore joints, poor weight gain, headaches, depression, and irritability.
Maybe you do not have celiac disease, but what about non-celiac gluten sensitivity? It is estimated that 18 million people are living with some degree of gluten sensitivity. That is 6 times the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease. The fact that gluten sensitivity can be completely dose dependent causes much confusion. On many occasions you may be able to tolerate wheat products, but overindulging may lead to GI discomfort, bloating, and a bunch of other undesirable symptoms.
Overall, it is quite possible that some bodybuilders, like the general population, may have some type of gluten sensitivity. Bodybuilders do not usually consume large quantities of gluten. The average bodybuilder’s diet may consist of 3-4 slices of Ezekiel bread per day – if that. Many may think that the GI symptoms they experience are due to gluten intolerance.
In actuality, the symptoms may well be due to the standard poor bodybuilding diet that consists of large quantities of protein, cheap poorly manufactured whey protein (choose a good isolate such as Universal’s Ultra Iso-Whey), low fiber carbohydrate sources (rice, cream of rice), hot sauces (GI irritant), and lack of fruits and vegetables. Gas forming vegetables, such as cruciferous vegetables, can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. Broccoli and brussels sprouts are leading offenders. Loading the GI with mass quantities of low fiber foods and gas forming spices can cause bad gas, constipation, irregular stools, fatigue, abdominal discomfort, and lack of appetite.
Eager for answers, many of us will jump to conclusions on why a particular issue is occurring or jump on the current trend in bodybuilding. This is one of the biggest mistakes that bodybuilders make. Bodybuilding is a very individual sport. Focusing on what everyone else is doing only prevents you from finding out what truly works for you. We should be focusing on our individual needs and looking at what could be causing the problem in our current diet. Often running an elimination diet can be incredibly useful.
This is done by removing all suspected problem foods over a period of time, for example 5-7 days. Then add one suspected food back at a time. This will allow us to pinpoint the culprit which is wreaking havoc on our GI system. Once the suspected problem food(s) are found, you will remove them again to see if the results are consistent. You will then have your answer.
How does all of this relate to bodybuilding? Bodybuilders have to eat large quantities of food multiple times per day in the off season in order to grow new muscle tissue. This day in and day out eating of large amounts of food puts stress on the digestive system. The GI system rarely gets time to rest. An alarming number of bodybuilders develop IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and experience bloating, terrible smelling gas, distended bellies, and non-regular stools. This can become a problem for a few reasons.
Primarily, we need our appetite to eat and grow. The other crucial aspect is mass inflammation in the GI tract. If the GI is not functioning at its potential because of this inflammation, it may negatively affect the absorption of critical nutrients for anabolism. Both of these issues can lead to a decrease in appetite and an increase in feelings of lethargy. This is what I call “low performance internal level.” What can be done to help this?
In my opinion, try establishing a well-balanced diet that is filled with easy to digest foods and limits known gas-forming foods before completely eliminating gluten from the diet. Reduce or eliminate cruciferous vegetables, cabbage, sugar alcohols (commonly found in chewing gum, diet products as a sweetener, and certain fruits), fatty meats, hot sauces, garlic and onion, excessive caffeine, and acidic foods (tomato paste/ sauces). Including higher fiber carbohydrate sources such as whole grain bread, potatoes (these can be problematic for some), oatmeal, oat bran, brown rice, and quinoa should be a priority.
I recommend lean meats and vegetables such as dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, romaine lettuce), green beans, tomatoes (although technically a fruit), and asparagus. Fruits such as bananas, blueberries, raspberries, and pineapple provide healthy variety and nutrients and are also recommended. However, apples, peaches, and pears can be a problem and should be eliminated because of their polyols content (natural sugar alcohol).
These are only some dietary suggestions that might be helpful and will give you a good start. Although increasing fiber may also cause or increase gas formation, fiber carries a list of health benefits. The most well known benefits of fiber are encouraging regularity through forming bulk in the stool and the reduction of cholesterol. In most cases, the body does adjust after a week or two on a higher fiber diet and gas should come back to baseline.
You can improve digestion and reduce gas by cooking your vegetables until soft and/or removing the skin when applicable. This may affect the nutrient level only slightly. Cooking vegetables breaks down some of the hard to digest fibers and makes it easier on the digestive tract to break down. Some other ways to help with the reduction of gas and bloating are to drink less fluid during meals (take your daily fluid requirements between meals), chew your food and slow down while eating, and avoid or reduce carbonated beverages. These behaviors can reduce air that is swallowed or pushed into the stomach and may relieve gas and bloating.
While GI problems are not unique to bodybuilders, a large number of bodybuilders do experience significant intestinal issues. Not all are because of gluten sensitivity. Looking at our current diet, implementing an elimination diet, identifying the culprits, making small changes, reducing gas promoting foods, and choosing foods that are easier to digest can make an enormous difference in establishing a successful dietary regime. The goal is to improve our appetite, energy, and overall well-being. Gluten may or may not be a culprit, but by focusing on you, the individual, and not following the latest trend, you have the greatest chance for success and reaching your growth potential.