Every time there’s a major tennis tournament, a curious thing happens: I see a marked increase in the frequency of Andy Murray’s and Novak Djokovic’s names appearing in my blog analytics ‘keywords’, often alongside ‘gluten’ or ‘celiac’ or ‘allergy’. A sure sign, I assume, that these magnificent tennis players’ appearance on our screens, and perhaps commentators’ referencing of their diets, has triggered a curiosity in what they eat from people either looking to improve their performances or else worried they are suffering from food sensitivities.
The pages these searchers land on are here (Murray) and here (Djokovic) and there’s not really much to add to either of those two posts, other than to say I don’t think we’re any further forward on either of them: still no closer to knowing whether any disease in either of them has ever been found, or whether accepted means of food sensitivity testing have been used on them.
Anyway, on the 20th October, I was alerted to a tweet by athlete Holly Bleasdale, who is a UK pole vaulter, and it appears a very good one. She wrote:
“I chose to go gluten free! Don’t like the idea that gluten is clogging up my stomach and not allowing nutrients to be efficiently absorbed!”
I responded to this, twice:
“It doesn’t ‘clog up’ stomach – and nutrients aren’t absorbed in stomach anyway. Only stops nutrient absorption if coeliac.”
“Would you consider correcting tweet, please? It’s alarmist to tell 20,000 followers ordinary foods compromise nutrition.”
I wasn’t the only one to challenge the tweet. Tweeter Jenni Hill wrote:
“I was under impression that gluten only prevents nutrients being absorbed if you have coeliac disease, like me? I may be wrong.”
And (with an impressive use of the œ ligature which I’ll belatedly applaud), Sporadic Musings added:
“Exactly, not recommended without cœliac disease due to risk of iron/folate deficiency. See GP if haven’t already.”
A few days later, EIsie tweeted:
“There are many reasons & arguments for taking up a gluten free diet, but this is not one of them. Please don’t misinform.”
Others commented too. None of us, to my knowledge, received a response. Perhaps I deserved to be ignored, but Jenni Hill, whose tone was humble and polite, did not.
Two days later I wrote to UK Athletics, pointing out there’s no medical evidence supporting what Bleasdale wrote, and expressing my concern about the perception of gluten among the public and athletes, arguing it was irresponsible to suggest that ordinary foods such as pastas, breads and cereals, which to the best of our current knowledge most people can safely eat and which those participating in sport need for energy, are actually negatively effecting health.
Two days after that a response from Liz Birchall in their press department:
“Holly’s twitter is her personal account so we cannot ask her to alter anything on it, however I will forward your comments to our nutritionist who may be able to advise her accordingly in this area and ensure she is more informed in future.”
Which was good, to a point. I do think, though, that as she is wearing a Team GB outfit in her Twitter avatar, and her bio clearly references her profession, Bleasdale could be perceived to be representing UK athletics somewhat. I pointed this out to UKA. I added:
“As the governing body for athletics, with a clear role to develop and look after health and welfare of athletes, surely there must be some duty to ensure athletes are aware of fundamental dietetic advice and understand basic human physiology – and don’t make careless ill-informed remarks.”
That was on the 25th October. Today, this arrived from UKA:
“I spoke with Holly’s agent about this and she actually withdrew the tweet soon after she did it. On that basis he and I consider the matter closed.”
‘Soon after’ is relative, I guess, but it was still live five days after she tweeted it, and deleting a tweet after that length of time is pretty fruitless as it’ll have disappeared off the bottom of the current feed anyway, unlikely to be viewed again. Deleting is not withdrawing. What would have signified would have been a follow-up tweet acknowledging the error and correcting it. I can’t see such in Bleasdale’s stream. Meanwhile, alongside the original tweet, and still there, was an RT. (You can see both tweets archived on the Athletes Tweets site here, by the way.) The RT reads:
“Novak Djokovic went gluten free and became world no.1.”
As I’ve argued before, Djokovic got to number 2 and had won a grand slam before going gluten free, which does beg the question quite to what degree gluten might have been holding him back in the first place, but anyhow… Yes, he went gluten free and then he became No. 1, but that doesn’t mean the former led to the latter. Correlation is not causation, a fact which escapes too many.
It’s fairly boring to point out, but Roger Federer didn’t give up gluten and became world no. 1. Rafa Nadal didn’t give up gluten and became world no.1. Serena Williams didn’t give up gluten and became world no.1. Accordingly, arguing ‘eating gluten helps you reach no 1’ is obviously silly, but it’s just as silly as what is said about Djokovic. And attaching widespread meaning to one anecdote, especially when there could have been so many other reasons for Djokovic’s improvements, is blinkered and foolish.
Why this matters
I do see that all this may seem nitpicky and petty, but I still feel it’s important. Here’s why. It has been Olympic and Paralympic year, with a lot of attention on our amazing athletes and their achievements, and one of the legacies is to inspire the next generation, keen to emulate their sporting heroes. In a competitive field, where the difference between medal and no-medal can be a fraction of a second or inch, all athletes are examining their exercises, sleep patterns, diets, lifestyles and more to see from where that extra tiny edge can be derived.
Diet tinkering is clearly popular, and what should concern us is from where highly visible athletes are getting their guidance, advice and information. Dietitians, who stick to the evidence base? Or nutritional therapists – many of whom are very good, but some of whom endorse unproven supplements, restrictions and tests, for instance? We can’t expect all sportspeople to be familiar with the finer points of dietetics, and it’s hardly surprising some are sketchily-informed, given the quantity of rubbish written about food sensitivities and related subjects on the web. But surely there’s a responsibility that they are taught by those who know what they’re talking about?
UK Athletics didn’t take the issue as seriously as I felt they should have, and they need to. There’s a duty of care to not only current athletes, but future athletes – young ones, especially, who may be vulnerable to inappropriate dietary manipulations, at a time when their bodies are growing, developing and being put through their paces in training.
Look, this isn’t really about Bleasdale, whom I wish well, or about having a pop at her: at only 20, she can arguably be forgiven for her ignorance and a certain level of immaturity in her use of social media. But it is one thing for somebody called Miley Cyrus to say that gluten is ‘crapppp’ or for vapid celebrities to bleat on about how good they feel eating a buckwheat cracker for lunch and a hundred and thousand for dessert, but when it’s sportspeople – walking, idolised adverts for health and fitness – making statements that everyday foods prevent nutrient absorption then something, somewhere has gone wrong. And if we can’t take the underlying problems this reveals seriously, then I don’t know what will make us do so.
As an aside, I wonder what some of the sponsors of the Olympics would make of it, were this gluten-suspicious mood among sportspeople to continue and grow – or if more widespread deleterious effects of gluten were to be discovered? With glutenous Heineken, McDonalds, and Cadbury’s among this year’s sponsors (reminding myself of this reality never fails to shock me), it will be interesting to see over the next decade whether they maintain an interest in putting money into sport, or whether attempts are made by them to challenge anti-gluten sentiment? Will athletics start to act if sponsorship money becomes thinner on the ground? And will ‘free from’ manufacturers get involved, to fill any gaps? A clue to that may be seen in Genius Foods’ sponsoring of (non-coeliac) sprinter-hurdler Andrew Steele – son of Coeliac UK Ambassador Dr Chris – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that, extending to teams and events themselves, in years to come.
Like the best of sport which we have to look forward to, it’ll be fascinating as a spectator to see what unfolds.