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Athletes champion gluten-free low carb diets: Novak Djokovic explains why

Novak Djokovic talks gluten-free diets.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When it comes to doing what it takes to succeed in your career, athletes face a unique challenge. The state of their bodies determines the fate of their careers. As a result, they sometimes must go on extreme weight loss diets or sacrifice their favorite foods, as the world's top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic has done, reported the Irish Examiner on Aug. 24.

After winning his match with Rafael Nadal, Novak allowed himself a rare indulgence: One square of chocolate.

"That was all I would allow myself," he said firmly. "That is what it has taken to get to number one."

And Djokovic contends that it also takes eliminating gluten completely. He believes that his decision to cut out gluten as well as tomatoes and dairy resulted in feeling "lighter, quicker, clearer in mind and spirit."

He's authored a book to share his plan: "Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence."

Novak is not alone in his decision to ignore traditional advice to load up on grains. Professional athlete Zach Bitter has become a high fat low carb ultra-runner, and he emphasizes the benefits of reducing carbohydrates. "I avoid whole grains like the plague," he wrote in a recent blog.

But that doesn't mean that the path is always smooth when it comes to his races. Zach revealed some of his latest challenges in an Aug. 24 podcast with Endurance Planet.

Zach emphasizes that athletes who want to use a low carb high fat (LCHF) diet for competition need to take the time to become fat-adapted. That means it's essential to shift to this type of food plan well in advance of a race.

Prior to changing his diet, Zach consumed what he calls "a traditional high-carbohydrate diet full of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. I didn't obsessively avoid fat, but consciously did try to eat much more carbohydrate than fat."

He then shifted completely. "I focused on making the primary source of fat what many in the past few decades have considered the most villainous kind of fat. That is, saturated fat," he says.

Zach has regularly checked his HDL and LDL readings, noting that "the nurse is always shocked at my HDL and LDL scores after I tell them my diet."

As for the issue of how long it takes to become fat-adapted? Zach has followed his LCHF diet for more than three years. And one of the world's leading experts on low carb diets, Dr. Jeff Volek, has been on a low carb diet for more than two decades and conducted numerous studies. Dr. Volek is the co-author of several key low carb high fat diet books including "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance."

"A lot of those studies are showing that when you give adequate time, there are consistent metabolic adaptations leaning toward burning more fat relative to carbs. How that translates into performance is a bit mixed," he said in a recent interview with True Health Unlimited.

Dr. Volek's research team analyzed runners at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. "There were several athletes restricting carbohydrates to some extent. In fact, the guy who won the race, (Timothy Olson), was a self-proclaimed low-carb athlete," he said.

Metabolism scientist Dr. William Lagakos, author of "The poor, misunderstood calorie: calories proper," points out that although studies show varying results, most reveal that athletes on high fat low carb diets perform as well or better than those on low fat high carb plans. In one such study, "strength-trained athletes showed improvements in high intensity exercise performance after only seven days of carbohydrate restriction," he noted in a blog.

However, in terms of ketogenic diets, adaptation is even more important. Or as Dr. Lagakos summarized: "Athletes who drop carbs cold turkey suddenly suck. It is known."

When athletes go low carb for sufficient periods of time, their performance benefits. He estimates that keto-adaptation takes an average of three weeks.

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