Novak Djokovic made headlines after revealing he dramatically improved his tennis game and overall health after switching to a gluten-free diet three years ago. But Djokovic isn't the only professional athlete who has gone gluten-free in a bid to improve performance.
Miami Heat star Ray Allen and the entire Garmin cycling team (including David Millar, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal) are among the gluten-free athletes who swear by the grain-free diet.
"Nutritionally speaking, gluten is useless," gastroenterologist Dr. Alessio Fasano told the Washington Post Oct. 20. "It doesn't do anything for us. For the first 99.9 percent of our human evolution, our species has been gluten-free."
Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, said even those who don't have a gluten allergy have trouble digesting gluten. This impedes athletic performance because it slows the body down.
"[You're] asking your GI system to do an impossible mission: to digest something that's not digestible," he said.
Novak, who discussed his gluten-free diet in his book, "Serve to Win," was astounded by the dramatic improvement in his tennis game and overall health after he stopped eating gluten.
"My allergies abated; my asthma disappeared," he wrote. "My fears and doubts were replaced by confidence. I have not had a serious cold or flu in nearly three years.
Mentally, you’ll be fresh, you’ll be happier, you’ll be calmer. Physically, you’ll be stronger, faster, more dynamic. Your muscles will work better. My life had changed because I had begun to eat the right foods for my body, in the way that my body demanded."
Not surprisingly, some people are skeptical of the lofty health claims of a gluten-free diet. Novak's longtime friend and on-court rival, Rafael Nadal, dismissed the gluten-free diet as a fad and called it restrictive. Shortly after making the remarks, Nadal overtook Djokovic in the ATP rankings as the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
"You can create hype, and you can have something that gets attention, but that doesn't mean that it's right," nutritionist Felicia Stoler told the Washington Post. "If you have nothing wrong with you as far as absorptive disorders, then there's no benefit by cutting out gluten."
Stoler, president of the Greater New York chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine, said she tried the gluten-free diet and experienced no weight loss or extra energy. "I'm very in tune with my body, and I didn't notice anything different other than it being incredibly inconvenient and aggravating," she said.
However, many health experts are now sold on the merits of going gluten-free, insisting it can ward off obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, ADHD, dementia, Parkinson's, and depression.