By Laura (The Gluten-Free Traveller)
Triumph Dining had the pleasure of speaking with Pete Bronski, ultra-marathoner and coauthor of several books. We spoke with Pete about himself, his relationship with gluten, his ultra-running and his new book, The Gluten-Free Edge.
Hi Pete, Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and what you do….
I’m a married father of two beautiful girls, rapidly approaching my mid-thirties. In my work as a member of the gluten-free community, I’m cofounder of the blog, No Gluten, No Problem; coauthor of several books: Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes, and The Gluten-Free Edge; and a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. I’m also a passionate endurance athlete focused on ultra-distance mountain and trail running, and an award-winning writer and editor.
When and how did you discover that gluten wasn’t your friend?
I’d been particularly sick for about two years, from 2005 until the beginning of 2007. Desperate for an answer (and hopefully, a diagnosis), I started seeing a holistic doctor in Colorado where we were living at the time. After describing my laundry list of symptoms and problems to him, he looked at me and said “Your problem is gluten.” To make a long story short, once I went strictly gluten-free, my health pulled a 180 and I felt better than I had in years.
What led you to believe that a gluten-free diet could provide an edge to athletes who don’t need to be gluten free?
A few years ago, I started hearing initial media stories about various athletes and sports teams—such as the Garmin pro cycling team in the Tour de France, covered in Men’s Journal—who were voluntarily going gluten-free to improve their performance. I began to wonder if these anecdotal stories had some truth to them, or if the gluten-free performance advantage was a myth. But after talking to more and more athletes from various sports, and just as importantly, diving into the peer-reviewed scientific literature, my coauthor Melissa and I found some good evidence that, Yes, going gluten-free may give an edge to some athletes who voluntarily adopt the diet but who otherwise have no diagnosed problem with wheat or gluten. The book that came out of that research process—The Gluten-Free Edge—thus speaks to two audiences: gluten-free athletes who have conditions such as celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, and athletes who are curious about voluntarily going gluten-free to gain a performance edge. We don’t say it’s a silver bullet for everyone. A person’s individual biology comes into play. But at the very least, it’s something every athlete ought to consider.
In what ways can a gluten-free diet improve athletic performance?
To varying degrees in different people, gluten can cause a variety of problems that negatively impact athletic performance. One of the biggest is inflammation. Too much and/or chronic inflammation inhibits recovery and impairs performance. This was one of the primary motivators for the Garmin cycling team going gluten-free … using the diet as an anti-inflammatory aid for their riders. Additionally, gluten can disrupt digestion, both by impairing nutrient absorption and through gas and bloating. For athletes who have conditions such as celiac disease, a gluten-free diet aids athletic performance in numerous other ways as well: improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, increased nutrient absorption, recovery from osteoporosis and anemia, and more.
How do you feel about gluten free fad dieting, which seems to be increasingly popular amongst celebrities recently?
To some degree, I feel that people can eat how they want to eat. (Though in the grand scheme, I’d love to see the quality of the average American diet get healthier…) When someone is vegetarian, or vegan, or low carb, or Paleo, or low refined sugar, we don’t generally give them a lot of grief or question their motives for why they eat that way. So why can’t someone voluntarily adopt a gluten-free diet? The tricky thing is that, for some of us, the gluten-free diet is a medically necessary diet, and we’re concerned that celebrities adopting a GF diet is going to cause people to not take it seriously. It’s a double-edged sword—on the one hand are legitimate concerns like those, and on the other hand, the fad component of gluten-free right now has helped to drive greater product availability, greater awareness, more restaurants offering GF menus, etc.
For me, the bigger issue than celebrities jumping on the GF bandwagon is the popular media perpetuating a number of myths about why they’re going gluten-free. Namely, that gluten-free is a low-carb diet and that gluten-free is a weight-loss diet, neither of which is necessarily true.
Come back next week for part two of our interview with Pete, where he speaks to us about what gluten-free foods keep him going during training and on race day and shares his advice for athletes interested in going gluten-free.