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Novak Djokovic's Gluten-free Diet - A Game Changer

Friday, November 13, 2015

Contents

This Sunday sees the the start of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London. The highlight of this end of year sporting event is the competition between the world’s top 8 singles players in men’s professional tennis who are all vying for the last title of season, as well as $1.92m (approximately £1.26m) in prize money. This year’s finals include all-time great Roger Federer, our own Andy Murray and the current world number 1 Novak Djokovic.Djokovic has risen to the top of the game in recent years having won the ATP World Tour Finals every year since 2012, the Wimbledon Championships 3 times in the past 5 years, and 3 out of 4 Grand Slams this year. Many have attributed his incredible championship performances and success to his change of diet - a gluten-free one which he believes can achieve ‘physical and mental excellence’.

Barclays ATP World Tour Finals Tennis Court

The ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena

Why did Djokovic go gluten-free?

It all started at a tournament in Croatia in 2010 when he was with Igor Cetojevic, a holistic practitioner. Cetojevic had previously noticed how Djokovic experienced physical problems during competitions - mid-match collapses, breathing difficulties and even vomiting during breaks.Cetojevic suspected that certain foods were causing these problems so he administered a simple test. He told Djokovic to put his left hand on his belly and his right arm straight out to the side. Cetojevic applied pressure to Djokovic’s right arm and told him to resist the pressure. Afterwards, Cetojevic gave him a slice of bread which he held in his left hand against his belly and stretched out his right arm to the side again.Djokovic thought this was crazy.Cetojevic applied pressure to Djokovic’s right arm again, only this time there was a difference. Djokovic struggled to resist the pressure and was noticeably weaker. According to Cetojevic this was a sign that Djokovic was sensitive to gluten, a protein found in cereal grains, especially wheat.Ensuing blood test results indicated that he was strongly intolerant to wheat and dairy, and he also had a mild sensitivity to tomatoes as well. This combination was particularly unfortunate for him as his parents owned a pizza parlour!

How did the gluten-free diet affect Djokovic?

After cutting out food that contained wheat (e.g. bread, pizza, sweet rolls) for about a week or so he began to feel the difference. In his book Serve to Win, he writes:"I felt lighter, more energetic. The nighttime stuffiness I had lived with for fifteen years suddenly disappeared.""Every day for the next week, I woke up feeling as though I’d had the best night’s sleep of my life."He reintroduced gluten back into his diet after 14 days and the following day he felt sluggish, dizzy and the stiffness returned. He felt as if he had ‘woken up with a hangover’. This was proof that he was indeed intolerant to gluten.In 2011, the year following his diet change, he had one of the greatest ever seasons in men’s tennis winning an impressive 10 titles and notched up 70 wins with only 6 losses. He also realised his dream of becoming the world's number 1 player. He has been the man to beat ever since.

Does a gluten-free diet actually provide any benefits?

If you suffer from similar problems to Djokovic after eating food containing gluten (e.g. wheat, barley, rye) it could mean you have an intolerance to gluten. Therefore, a gluten-free diet may bring about an improvement in symptoms. Other possible symptoms of gluten intolerance may include:

  • diarrhoea
  • excessive wind
  • constipation
  • persistent or unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting
  • recurrent stomach pain, cramping or bloating
  • tiredness

If you experience any of the above, consult your GP for a proper diagnosis. It could even be a more serious problem such as an allergy to wheat, coeliac disease, or a different underlying problem altogether. You should always seek advice via your GP rather than attempting to diagnose or treat problems yourself.For those who do not suffer from gluten intolerance, allergic reactions, or coeliac disease, then the simple answer is no, a gluten-free diet does not provide any benefits. In fact, you may be worse off as a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, particularly the B vitamins which help the the body to release energy from the food we eat. You could also miss out on minerals and fibre, which improves digestive health and can prevent weight gain as it helps us feel fuller for longer and consume fewer calories.

Final words

The gluten-free diet worked for Djokovic because he had a genuine medical condition - gluten sensitivity. Avoiding gluten improved his symptoms and as a result, he was able to perform at his best. There are still many nutritious alternatives available to individuals on a gluten-free diet: brown rice, potatoes, beans and corn are all common examples.For those who do not have a medical condition, there is no clear scientific evidence to show that going gluten-free is the healthier option. Gluten is present in staple foods - bread, pasta, noodles, cereal - that have nourished populations for thousands of years and it should not be seen as the villain.

Have your say

Have you recently gone gluten-free and noticed any changes? Let us know in the comments section below or talk to us on Twitter or Facebook.

References

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