Can going gluten-free help your athletic performance? Some top athletes believe it can. In fact, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London feature several athletes who credit their health and in some cases their performance to the gluten-free diet.
Some of these gluten-free Olympians have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. In other cases, they don't have a medical diagnosis, but they've found the diet improves their performance and frequently their stamina.
Here's a rundown of the Olympians competing in London who follow the gluten-free diet:
- Nate Brannen is a middle distance runner for the Canadian team who competed in the 1500-meter race in London. He qualified for the semifinal round with a time of 3:39.95, but failed to qualify for the finals with a time of 3:39.26 in the semifinal round. Brannen does not have a diagnosis of either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Instead, Brannen told Triumph Dining, his coach recommended that he try the gluten-free diet as an injury prevention strategy. He began the diet in 2011 and believes his body is much healthier when he eats that way ... and he has had minimum injuries, as well. Brannen competed in the 2008 Olympics, but missed qualifying for the final by slightly more than one second.
- Novak Djokovic, who's probably the best-known gluten-free athlete in the world, won a bronze medal in Men's Singles tennis during the 2008 Beijing games, but failed in 2012 to repeat, losing to Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro in the men's tennis singles bronze medal match. Djokovic and teammate Viktor Troicki lost in the first round in men's tennis doubles at the London games. Learn more about Olympic tennis from About.com's Guide to Tennis: Olympic Tennis Underway
- Andrew Steele ran the 400-meter and the 400-meter relays for Great Britain in Beijing in 2008, but was passed over for the British team in 2012. Steele struggled through injuries and through a diagnosis with the Epstein-Barr virus until he switched to a gluten-free diet. British gluten-free food manufacturer Genius sponsored Steele's Olympic bid in 2012.
- Jenn Suhr, the world's top-ranked female pole vaulter, cleared 4.75 meters, or approximately 15 feet, 7 inches, to win the gold medal in the women's pole vaulting event at the U.S. Olympic games in London. In 2011, she was diagnosed with celiac disease after suffering from non-stop cramping, weakness, dehydration and several injuries. Suhr, who is six feet tall, won a silver medal in the women's pole vault four years ago in Beijing and worked hard to recover from her celiac and win the gold this time around: "It was definitely something that I’ve wanted, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so bad," she posted on her Facebook page immediately after her victory.
- Dana Vollmer, a swimmer who qualified for the U.S. Olympics team in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter freestyle relay, was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity and egg intolerance in 2011 after suffering near-constant stomach aches for years. She says the diet cleared that up, but also improved her performance. "I felt like I got a lot leaner but yet stronger" by going gluten- and egg-free, Vollmer told USA Today in an interview. Vollmer won the gold! in the 100-meter butterfly, and Vollmer's team captured the gold in the 200-meter freestyle relay. Learn more about Olympic swimming from About.com's Guide to Swimming: Olympic Swimming and Swimmers
- Sadly, Amy Yoder Begley, a runner from Portland, Ore., was supposed to compete in the 10,000-meter track and field event for the U.S. but was sidelined due to injury. Begley was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006 after living with symptoms that included anemia, fatigue, bloating and frequent bathroom trips. She competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and took first in the 10,000-meter in the 2009 USA Track and Field Championships.
Check out the event schedules for all these gluten-free competitors here: 2012 Olympic Event Schedules for Gluten-Free Athletes. In addition, my blog will have regular updates as the Games progress.