Could Going Gluten-Free Improve Your Game?

The Toronto Star had an interesting article on Tuesday about Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic. Now if you know me, you know I am anything but a sports fanatic; I don’t mind playing sports sometimes, but you’ll never catch me watching them. So what lead me to read an entire article about a tennis star? It was the headline: ‘Djokovic switched to gluten-free diet, now he’s unstoppable on court.’

We may see gluten-free make an even bigger leap into public awareness if it starts making an impact in the sports world. Apparently this Djokovic is “scorching hot”, on the road to becoming the top ranked player, and close to tying or surpassing the current winning streak-holder John McEnroe from 1984. And he credits a lot of this to going gluten-free.

Gluten in a protein found in grains that is quite difficult for many people to digest. While some, like those with celiac disease, have violent digestive reactions to gluten, others have fairly hidden reactions that they don’t realize are there until they eliminate it from the diet. People coming off gluten claim anything from clearer thinking, less muscle soreness, better digestion, greater energy and more. Gluten can even exacerbate symptoms of autoimmune disorders like eczema, arthritis or multiple sclerosis.

Before the start of the current season, Djokovic switched to a gluten-free diet, eliminating wheat, rye, barley and consequently, most forms of processed starch. According to the Star, “Just as suddenly, he grew into an unstoppable force on the tennis court. In January he defeated world No. 1 Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open, and this past Sunday he dropped Nadal again to win the Italian Open. The 23-year-old attributes much of his success to his eating habits.”

Djokovic told the Mirror, “I have lost some weight but it’s only helped me because my movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically.”

But, as the Star interviewed trainer and nutritionist Noah Deutsch says, “gluten-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” I completely agree. There a number of gluten-free products on the market that are loaded with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and any number of additives not conducive to health. Instead of going for the processed gluten-free foods (ones that will cost you a pretty penny anyway), it makes more sense to emphasize other starches like quinoa, buckwheat or sweet potatoes.

Gluten-free eating probably isn’t going to turn an amateur athlete into the next Djokovic, but it may tighten up your game. If your body isn’t being dragged down by something it can’t handle properly, the extra energy that was going into dealing with that something will be freed up for your game or your workout. You may see all sorts of improvements.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, a Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef living in Toronto.

An Editor’s Review:

Interesting. A lot of the people who experience positive effects when they cut gluten out of their diets probably actually do have Celiac Disease. It’s estimated the vast majority of cases go undiagnosed. Most people who have it do not have those classic digestive symptoms people have heard about and doctors expect. It’s probably only 5% of Celiac disease cases where those classic symptoms are showing up, which is why most people don’t know they have it. (Check the reference at the bottom of my post.)

One other thing about going gluten-free, which is luckily improving, is that a lot of the gluten-free products that aren’t sold aren’t fortified the same way wheat grain products are. They’re also obviously nutritionally different from those products naturally, so there are deficiencies that can develop if someone is on this diet for any longer period of time. Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, calcium, folate, iron and fiber are things to be concerned about. Often ingredients relatively high in protein and fat are used in gluten-free foods, or will replace wheat in one’s diet when going gluten-free, so calories can add up quickly. Trying a gluten-free diet or getting tested for Celiac disease isn’t a bad idea if you have any strange unexplained symptoms, including depression, infertility, liver problems, fatigue, swelling and any symptoms that indicate a nutrient deficiency. Just keep in mind if you start the diet first and then go for blood tests later, you might get false negatives because the gluten antibodies are no longer present. You might get false negatives anyway! I figure if the diet makes you feel better though, that’s probably a good thing, as long as you’re careful not to become deficient on it.