Gluten-free diet helped Novak, but it may not work for all athletes

  • Govindan Kishwar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 22, 2016 11:46 IST
Novak Djokovic has credited going gluten-free as one of the major reasons for his improved health and subsequent success on court. (AP Photo)

A quick Google of ‘Novak Djokovic diet’ will yield thousands of results with catchy click-bait headlines like ‘The diet that helped Djokovic win Wimbledon’ or ‘The diet that SAVED Djokovic’.

These articles will highlight how the world No 1’s fitness has improved due to the diet and training regime he has followed for a few years now. It’s tempting for others to adopt the same, the diet bit at least. After all, if the top men’s tennis player has hugely benefitted, how can it not work for others?

A recurring theme in all of the articles is ‘gluten-free’. Gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free cereals, and so on. Gluten is a protein found most commonly in wheat, giving it the chewy texture we all love so much while allowing it to rise. Alright then, simple enough? Not quite.

It is easy to just follow the routine, while one can just as easily overlook the fact that Djokovic, 28, struggled with fitness for years before consulting a specialist on why he was breaking down on court in the latter sets. The diagnosis was that the Serb was sensitive to gluten, and had a condition known as celiac disease that affects only one percent of the population. The diagnosis was made in 2010, and since then he has been stockpiling Grand Slam titles and showed the stamina of a Border Collie on the court.

Many other athletes have also adopted a gluten-free diet in the belief that it will definitely improve their fitness. However, a recent study by Dana Lis, a Ph.D candidate in Australia, shows that dropping gluten from the diet didn’t necessarily help athletes. Over two trial periods, oblivious to the gluten or gluten-free diet they were on, the athletes reported no change in their performance or health.

Another problem athletes, mostly runners, face is gastrointestinal. From bloating to cramp to diarrhoea, it is estimated that 90 percent of athletes suffer from digestive problems. One theory is that exertion diverts blood and fluids from the digestive system to areas of the body where they are more pressingly needed, such as the leg muscles.

“An athlete’s nutrient intake and timing are so critical to performance,” Lis concludes in her study. “I hope that people learn to be more objective in terms of what they hear and read about gluten-free diet and nutrition in general.”

A New York Times article analyses why some people --- not just athletes --- are sensitive to gluten while comparing it to another common problem --- lactose intolerance.

The argument is that since agriculture started only 12,000 years ago, the human immune system has not had enough time to adapt to the gluten protein found in wheat.

That logic doesn’t seem to work in lactose intolerance as humans seem to have adapted a lot faster to the consumption of dairy products. Some anti-gluten sections also say that the genetically modified wheat we consume today is a lot richer in protein and hence the body reacts to it.

Lis’ paper debunks this theory. Only 13 people were studied, though it is felt the result would have been the same even with a larger test group.

Anyway, Djokovic himself seemed to hint he may not be averse to stepping out of his gluten-free comfort zone once in a while, when he distributed chocolates containing ‘super foods’ at the pre-Australian Open press conference.

So, thinking of going gluten-free? Think again, and maybe you should consult a doctor first.

A New York Times article sums it up best. “Maybe we should stop asking what’s wrong with wheat, and begin asking what’s wrong with us.”

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