Impact of a Gluten Free Diet on Physical Performance

It’s no secret that there is a rise in people following a gluten free diet. We are after all a gluten free company, so we should know! Our pasta has won awards and we’re passionate about championing gluten free food. 

With the rise in popularity of gluten-free foods, this must mean that more people are being diagnosed with coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and even wheat allergies. In fact, according to Coeliac UK, 1 in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, though the number with an actual diagnosis is far less.

But say you know you have to be gluten free and you are also interested in physical fitness. Does removing gluten from your life have an effect on physical performance? Can you become an elite athlete while following a gluten free lifestyle? Are there things to be aware of when you are training and eating gluten free?

Whether you are managing coeliac disease, a gluten intolerance or even a wheat allergy, it doesn’t mean exercise is off the table. In fact, elite athletes like Eve Muirhead and Novak Djokovic found that after removing gluten from their diet, their performance level increased. 

Let's get into it.

The Science Behind Gluten Free Eating

So what do we mean when we are talking about gluten? Glutenis a protein found in certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye. It has a rather unique property of being stretchy yet stable, so it provides a familiar texture to bread and cakes. 

Nutritionally, gluten tends to be found in carbohydrates, one of the three main macronutrients needed for a balanced diet. In Europe and the West, we tend to get the largest portion of starchy carbohydrates from wheat, which yes, does contain gluten. Annoyingly, because of its unique properties and ease of availability, gluten is found in many, many different kinds of food from soy sauce to malt vinegar and protein bars to flavoured nuts. Want to see a list of foods that contain gluten? Head over here.

Some people, however, cannot properly digest gluten. The most severe form of this is coeliac disease, where gluten causes an autoimmune reaction in the body where the body begins to attack the small intestine. People who have coeliac disease should avoid all gluten, as even the smallest amount can trigger very adverse symptoms. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) often results in similar symptoms to coelic disease (bloating, stomach pain, smelly faeces, brain fog), but there does not appear to be the same immune response (damage to the gut lining). The third in this trifecta is wheat allergy, which tends to result in hives. People with a wheat allergy may find that they can eat other grains containing gluten (barley, rye), without adverse effects.

People with coeliac disease and those who have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten, as the effects of consuming gluten can be totally debilitating. However, in avoiding gluten, people with these conditions often find that quality of life is vastly improved and even physical performance can be massively boosted if your body isn’t trying to attack itself over a rogue slice of pizza.  

Gluten Free Diets in the Athletic World

In recent years, there has been something of a “moment” for gluten free diets possibly being the answer to all gastrointestinal problems. According to a questionnaire-style study from 2014, around 50% of respondents (of around 900 athletes including Olympic and World medalists) followed a gluten-free diet at least half the time. None of these athletes had been diagnosed with coeliac disease or NCGS.  

There has also been some evidence that for people who are tolerant of gluten, eating gluten free offers no advantage. In a 2016 study conducted by Dana Lis from the University of Tasmania in conjunction with the Canadian Sports Institute of British Columbia, a group of athletes were studied over the course of two weeks. In an interview with the New York Times, Lis said “we did not find a beneficial or negative effect of a gluten-free diet for athletes who had no clinical necessity for the diet.” Although, she did acknowledge that her study did not cover whether or not there were positives or negatives associated with uneccessarily following a gluten free diet in the long term.

The takeaway? More research needs to be done. But for those who do not have coeliac disease or NCGS, not eating gluten will probably not make a huge difference in your athletic performance.

However, it is an undeniable fact that for people who cannot eat gluten, following a gluten free diet is far healthier (and in the most extreme cases, life-saving) than the alternative. As with managing any condition, and for elite athletes in particular, planning meals and consuming a balanced diet is of paramount importance.

Gluten free sports nutrition will look very similar to conventional sports nutrition. While there is an added level of attention needed to ingredients and food preparation, the principles remain the same: identifying the balance of macronutrients desired and ensuring the right micronutrients are included.

Nutritional Considerations for Newly Diagnosed Gluten Free Athletes

We spoke to Ali Walsh, a gluten free coach who received her own Coeliac diagnosis over 20 years ago. Ali is also the author of the popular (and informative!) blog, Life on a Rice Cake. She says there are three main things to think about if you’ve had a recent recommendation to eat gluten free and want to continue on a fitness journey.

Firstly, that you adhere to your gluten-free diet,” she says. “Also, a gluten-free diet plan can lead to certain nutritional deficiencies if not properly balanced, as some gluten-containing foods are rich in nutrients people don't always seek elsewhere. So make sure you work with an appropriate specialist dietitian and you should easily be able to meet your nutritional needs. Start by focusing on key areas such as calcium, fibre and iron, to name a few.

Ali goes on to say that the second thing is to make sure you introduce new foods slowly. If you’ve been dealing with stomach issues such as bloating or pain, it may well take some time to adjust, so give yourself the gift of going slowly.

Thirdly, you’ll need to avoid what’s known as ‘cross-contact’,” Ali says. “For people with coeliac disease, anything more than 20 parts per million is deemed unsuitable.” This means that you really do have to be vigilant, particularly if you prepare food in a shared space. Ali recommends considering using separate utensils and squeezy bottles for condiments.

For more from Ali, scroll to the bottom of this article for her expanded comments. They are fab!

Case Studies: Athletes on Gluten Free Diets

Drew Brees

Drew Brees is a former American football quarterback and philanthropist. He was also diagnosed with a hefty list of food allergies, including wheat, in his 20s. “Having food allergies means we face many challenges in managing the food choices in our house”, Brees said in a 2012 press release for So Delicious Dairy Free. But those challenges didn’t stop Brees from claiming MVP titles and throwing over 5,000 yards in 2011, as well as winning the Superbowl with the New Orleans Saints.

Eve Muirhead

Eve Muirhead is a Scottish World Champion curler. Before the 2014 Winter Olympics, she began to feel unwell and after undergoing tests, she received a diagnosis of coeliac disease. While initially shocked by her results, in an interview with the Daily Record she said, “The difference between how I felt before I was diagnosed and how I feel now that my diet is gluten-free is night and day. I’ve got so much more energy.” Muirhead and her team went on to win bronze at that Winter Olympics, following that up with a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Novak Djokovic

24 time grand slam winner and current Tennis World Number One, Novak Djokovic has been following a gluten free diet since 2010. In that year, he began working with a nutritionist who recommended a gluten free diet. While it is unknown whether Djokovic has been diagnosed formally, in his 2014 book, Serve to Win, Djokovic wrote: "Suddenly there was an X factor, a change in my diet that allowed my body to perform the way it was meant to." After Djokovic made the change to a gluten free diet, he went on to become the champion tennis player he is today.

Nutritional Considerations for Newly Diagnosed Gluten Free Athletes

So what are some considerations and risks when adopting a gluten free diet? The first thing to say is that if you are not sensitive to gluten, there is little point in completely cutting gluten out of your diet. 

However, if you are gluten intolerant or have been diagnosed with coeliac disease, you will know that the risks associated with consuming gluten just aren’t worth it. 

A huge part of managing coeliac disease or gluten intolerance is being mindful about the food you eat. As Ali said above, an improperly balanced gluten-free diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Iron deficiency is definitely one to keep an eye on: as much as a quarter of those with undiagnosed Coeliac disease may not have enough iron, as the damage to the gut lining makes it difficult for the body to absorb. 

Red meat, egg yolk, leafy greens, pulses, and dried fruit such as apricots and figs are all good sources of iron. However, if you have been diagnosed as having an iron deficiency, which is done by a simple blood test, you may be prescribed an iron supplement. 

And as with adopting any new diet, if you notice any adverse changes or think you might have a nutritional deficiency, you should speak to your GP.

Supplements and Gluten Free Diets

Provided you are ensuring any supplements you take are gluten free, some supplements can be very useful. Besides, of course, the NHS recommended vitamin D (thank you cloudy, gloomy weather), for those with coeliac disease, Ali also recommends a calcium supplement.

Many coeliacs have a higher risk of getting osteoporosis than the average person and are advised to up their calcium intake,” Ali says. “It can be difficult to maintain this through food alone. Note also that vitamin D aids calcium absorption and therefore a combined vitamin tablet may be a good bet.

For gluten free athletes looking to further improve performance whether with protein powder or supplements like creatine, so long as the sources are gluten free, there should not be any adverse effects. 

Conclusion and Future Outlook

When eating gluten free, planning is key. And when you are working on physical performance, planning, also, is key. If you are already in the headspace of needing to plan your meals, it is only one extra step to understand what nutrition is important for you to dovetail with your fitness goals. 

For those who need to eat that way, the benefits of a gluten free lifestyle are unquantifiable. And if you want to see if skipping your gluten-loaded pasta for something a little different makes a change for you, why not try our delicious 100% yellow pea penne?

If you think you might have coeliac disease, please speak to your GP. More information can be found on

For this article, we spoke to Ali Walsh, author of the popular blog Life on a Rice Cake. You can find her on Instagram @lifeonaricecake or X (formerly Twitter) @aliwalshgf.

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