Djokovic: have dietary changes restored his crown?

By Marika Sboros

(Updated Sept 2016)

World Number One tennis player Novak Djokovic is back as Australian Open champion for 2016. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, the Serbian’s career was in precipitous decline. The pundits were eagerly predicting Djokovic’s early demise.

It’s true that his on-court performance was inconsistent, punctuated by midmatch collapses. He complained of non-specific ailments. Among these were chronic fatigue, chest pains, stomach spasms and breathing difficulties that doctors diagnosed as sports-induced asthma.

Now, he’s is firmly back on track, or rather on court and dietary change appears to be an important factor in his return. His Australian Open performance throughout coupled with his spectacular wins at Wimbledon and the US open in 2015 show just how far he has come since the time back home in Serbia in 2010. That was when Djokovic consulted nutrition specialist Dr Igor Cetojevic to help with his flagging form.

Cetojevic diagnosed gluten intolerance and dramatically overhauled Djokovic’s diet. He advised Djokovic to cut out sugar and eschew all foods containing gluten. Gluten is a gluey protein composite found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye.

Djokovic goes gluten-free

Cutting out gluten wasn’t easy for Djokovic. It is in bread and pasta, which are staples of the Serbian diet, and other foods. It’s also in pizza, one of Djokovic’s favourite foods. It didn’t help that his parents ran a popular pizza restaurant in Serbia. His family now runs a chain of gluten-free restaurants in Serbia appropriately called “Novak ”.

djokovicDjokovic was desperate enough to follow his doctor’s orders to the letter. Results were a gamechanger practically overnight, transforming his health in body and mind, and of course his tennis.

Aches and pain vanished. His sleep improved, he reported feeling more mentally alert, his energy levels soared. Within a year, he became the world number one. He has stayed at that lofty height ever since 2011. That was except for a short hiatus as Number Two in 2014, after Swiss champion Roger Federer dethroned him.

Djokovic has documented his journey back to health in his autobiography, Serve to Win.  In it, he says that the path has involved learning to “listen” to his body. “Once I did that, everything changed,” he writes .“You could call it magic. It felt like magic.”

It looked just like magic on court, precipitating the winning streak that has restored his World Number One rating.

Djokovic eats simple meals these days, mostly white meat, fish, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils, fruits and healthy fats. He admits to finding it difficult at times to maintain gluten-free eating on tour, but does so with what his specialist team described as “extraordinary dedication”.

Dropping the carbs

His diet appears to be much lower in carbs than in the past. However, he isn’t against a high-sugar boost during on-court changeovers. He enjoys high-sugar, medjool dates, the diamond of sweet treats.

Media reports have at times claimed that Djokovic has coeliac disease, and have called him the“world’ s most famous coeliac ”. That’s vastly overstating the case. Coeliac disease has become “a generic blanket term”, one expert said, “not unlike how Kleenex today signifies no more than a box of tissue paper of any brand”.

The term covers just about “everything connected to a reaction to gluten”, US nutrition specialist Dr Rivka Roth on the website said. That’s unhelpful and inaccurate, Roth said. There needs to be a proper distinction between coeliac disease, non-coeliac, and/ or coeliac gluten sensitivity.

Glutenfree eating is also often touted as a weight loss aid. Certainly, Djokovic has returned to court in streamlined shape, after cutting gluten and dairy from his diet. But is gluten-free really all it’s cracked up to be for weight loss?

“Not necessarily,” says Johannesburg dietitian Celynn Erasmus.

Gluten-free a fad?

Gluten-free is essential for a segment of the population that has gastrointestinal conditions such as coeliac disease. It is also for those who can’t tolerate even small amounts of gluten, says Erasmus.

A lucrative industry has grown around gluten-free products, she says. However, these are “not always good for slimming ”.

Production of gluten-free products, such as bread, involves removing the wheat protein from the food and replacing it with for another flour such as almond, rice or corn. This “missing gluten” makes it difficult for bread and bakery products to retain their shape and softness during baking.

To solve this, manufacturers introduce additives such as corn starch, xanthum gum and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose. They also pack products with added sugar and fats to make them tastier, says Erasmus.

“Ironically, the result is that gluten-free bread can make it harder to reduce your waistline.”

Team changes

Gluten-free eating requires people to become “gluten detectives ”, scouring food labels and looking for hidden gluten because it is in everything, says Erasmus. That includes products you’d least expect to contain gluten, from frozen vegetables to soya sauce and medication.

Of course, it isn’t only dietary changes that make a tennis champion. Djokovic’s team includes his coach, German former tennis champion Boris Becker, a fitness trainer, hitting partner, physiotherapist, psychologist and nutrition therapist. He also reportedly practises meditation, yoga and tai chi to centre himself.

And becoming a father for the first time recently has given him a new sense of purpose and grounding. Wife Jelena gave birth to their son, Stefan, in October 2014.

While gluten-free eating has benefitted Djokovic, he makes clear in his book that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Along with all the other changes, diet has helped to teach him that in his case, “nothing is impossible”.