Put yourself in Novak Djokovic’s tennis shoes. It’s 2009. You have been playing tennis passionately since the age of 4, even beneath a sky peppered with F-117 bombers in war-torn Serbia. It is your dream to win Grand Slam tournaments and be the best. But no matter how hard you train, your body betrays you. Djokovic had collapsed in matches before and now he was defending his title in the Australian Open against top player Andy Roddick. The whole world was watching. The last thing he wanted was to bow out from fatigue before the end of the match, but that is exactly what he had to do.
He felt exhausted, his body had no fight left - it just wouldn’t do what he wanted it to. The tennis world was unimpressed and shocked that someone would give up because they felt tired! But not all the spectators were bemused.
The Serbian doctor who had been watching the match contacted Djokovic to suggest that he might be gluten intolerant. Willing to try anything, the tennis player subjected himself to a series of tests that confirmed, yes, he had a very high intolerance to wheat, as well as sensitivity to dairy and tomatoes.
The widespread theory that some people’s bodies develop intolerance to gluten because they eat so much of it is not better proved than in the case of Djokovic. His family had owned a pizza restaurant since he was a child, so what had he been eating? Wheat, cheese and tomatoes!
Gluten is a sticky protein composite found in some grains, especially wheat. The word comes from the Latin for glue and bakers love it because it is the substance that makes dough elastic and binds the crumb of cakes together. The word glue, ironically, also reflects how addictive it is – as we digest gluten, it releases an opioid peptide called gluteomorphin (whose effects mimic an opiate) and it has been suggested that this makes us crave more.
To anyone who is intolerant the word gluten probably also sounds like gluttony! Our society is literally in a gluten glut, stuffing itself on so much wheat that it’s hard to shop and eat out gluten-free.
Western society is very wheat-centric. Since the 1970s, wheat farming has doubled in the UK and of course it is our main crop. If you want to grab some lunch, it’s hard to avoid it – it is the main ingredient in most of our sandwiches, pastries, pasta and cakes.
Gluten also lurks in other grains, including rye, spelt and barley. Many people find they react strongly to wheat, but cope well with these other, less glutinous grains.
Around 1 in 5 people are thought to be ‘gluten intolerant’, as Novak Djokovic is. If they eat wheat, they can feel sluggish and drained afterwards, their brains often seem foggy and they can be emotionally distant or irritable. These weaknesses can take five hours to appear after the gluten is eaten and nutritionists say this may be because gluten is not very easy to digest.
Other symptoms of intolerance can include headaches or migraines, negative emotional patterns (such as anxiety or depression), a lack of motivation, feeling dizzy, sore joints, digestive issues (such as wind) and difficulty putting on or losing weight.
1 in 200 people have a more serious condition called Coeliac Disease, which can show up as emotional problems, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Gluten reacts to the wall of a Coeliac’s intestines, which can hamper their ability to absorb nutrients.
Gluten has also been linked to ADHD, autism, schizophrenia and criminal behaviour.
The 2-week fast
In his new book Serve To Win: The 14-Day Gluten-free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence (£12.99, Bantam Press), Djokovic describes the result of cutting gluten out of his diet for a fortnight as “astonishing.” After enduring the cravings for gluten, he began to feel lighter and full of energy. He stopped feeling anxious and didn’t lose his temper, he felt focused and he slept better. Added to that the breathing difficulties that had felt like a curse on his career subsided. He went on to win 10 titles, 3 Grand Slams and 43 consecutive matches, and became no.1 in the world.
However, gluten-free isn’t for everyone. Tennis champ Rafael Nadal has said that eating wheat doesn’t affect his performance and Andy Murray found that a gluten-free diet left him feeling lethargic.
But if you think you might be sensitive to gluten, copy Novak and cut it out of your diet completely for two weeks to see if your energy, mood and physical health improves.
Easy does it
If you’re a wheat addict (toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner and pizza at the weekend...) it’s advisable to do 2-3 days of gluten reduction before beginning the 100% gluten-free diet: i.e. have two meals that contain gluten the first day, then one gluten meal the next day, then go completely gluten-free. Going from all to nothing is too much of a shock for the body.
What you can and can’t eat
Here is a list of what to eat and what to avoid, during the 2-week fast. Nutritionists advise removing gluten completely, rather than reducing it, to get a clear picture of how it affects your body. To someone who is intolerant, eating just a small amount can trigger symptoms.
Gluten is found in the obvious:
WHEAT-RICH FOODS that make up the bulk of the Western diet, such as bread, pasta, pizza, biscuits, pastries, sandwiches, muffins, cous cous and (sob) cake! (But don’t run screaming as most of these can be bought or made gluten-free).
And the not so obvious:
BEER (you can buy gluten-free beer in many supermarkets and some pubs)
OATS (you can buy gluten-free oats)
FAST FOOD FRENCH FRIES
PROCESSED LUNCHEON MEATS
MANY SALAD DRESSINGS
SOY SAUCE (use Tamari soy sauce, which is tasty and gluten-free, instead)
SOME SHOP-BOUGHT SOUPS
You can eat any of these gluten-free foods:
BEANS & PULSES
MEAT & FISH
FRUIT & VEGETABLES
CORN & CORNMEAL
QUINOA (considered a grain and a protein)
SOY (including tofu)
GLUTEN-FREE FLOURS (Doves do a gluten-free white blend and brown blend and a rice flour)
ALCOHOL: Spirits made with wheat are fine because the gluten is lost during distillation. You can have gin, brandy, rum, vodka, whisky etc., as well as wine and cider – hurrah!
How can I live without gluten?!
For those who imagine that there is now nothing to eat, here is a small list of possible gluten-free meals:
(Whisk 1 egg, 2-3 dessert spoons Doves Gluten-Free White Flour Blend and a slosh of rice milk)
-Quinoa or rice puffs with rice/dairy milk
-Toast (made with gluten-free bread)
-Porridge (made with gluten-free oats)
-Smoothie (perhaps made with coconut & rice milk, seeds, nuts, honey & fruit)
-Sushi (with Tamari soy sauce, not regular soy sauce)
-Warm Puy lentil salad with vegetables
-Hummus with salad and gluten-free pitta
-Chicken soup with rice noodles
-Mackerel and potato salad
-Vegetable and cheese frittata
-Indian dal (made with split peas, mung beans or lentils), vegetables and rice
-Corn tortillas, refried black beans and guacamole
-Tofu curry with vegetables and rice
-Polenta with roasted vegetables and seeds
-Stuffed peppers with rice, vegetables and cheese
-Butternut squash risotto
-Fish pie (with sauce made from gluten-free flour)
There are lots of websites offering gluten-free recipes. Here are a few: