Novak Djokovic's recent winning streak stunned tennis commentators, leaving them wondering, "What's this guy on?" The better question is: What is he not consuming? The answer: pasta, bread and other foods containing the wheat protein gluten. Djokovic credits his good-to-great transformation to his recent diet change, saying that he "feels sharper and [has] lost a few pounds." He made the switch last year after his nutritionist determined he was allergic to gluten.
And while the Serbian star was rising through the ranks at the French Open (losing to R-Fed in the semis), another player, Sabine Lisicki, blamed gluten for the cramping and exhaustion that caused her dramatic on-court collapse. "I am sad to say my body let me down," she wrote on her blog. "Doctors recently discovered that I am intolerant to gluten." Lisicki speculates that this condition caused the cramping and exhaustion that led to her being carried off on a stretcher.
The recent spotlight on gluten has many athletes wondering if they, too, should steer clear of the stuff.
A protein in wheat, barley and rye, gluten is found in these grains and the foods made from them. Although oats don't contain it naturally, they're often processed in facilities that handle wheat. Because of its thickening and preservative powers, gluten is also used in a long list of supermarket staples, including ketchup, ice cream, salad dressing, sauces, soups, seasonings, cold cuts, hot dogs, chips and dietary supplements.
While gluten is safe for most, it's no picnic for the 3 million -- or one in 133 -- people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. For people with this hereditary condition, gluten triggers inflammation and damage in the small intestine. That blocks absorption of nutrients, leading to anemia, osteoporosis and other problems.
Much more common, but less serious, is a gluten sensitivity: It's thought that up to one in seven people, like Djokovic, has trouble digesting the protein. Symptoms for this condition and celiac disease are similar; they include fatigue, gas, bloating, stiffness and diarrhea. Because there's no medication or treatment for these conditions, a gluten-free diet comes into play.
The real deal
If you suspect that you're intolerant, see your doc to test for celiac disease. While there are some screens for gluten sensitivity, it isn't an exact science. So you may want to try going gluten-free for a few months to see if you notice a difference. The eating plan requires eliminating all sources of gluten, including even the tiny amount in condiments like soy sauce and ketchup. Along with your usual servings of produce, dairy and proteins, you can substitute rice, corn, millet, potatoes and quinoa for wheat-based carbs.
Triathlete Terra Castro says going gluten-free was key for helping her go pro. "Before I was diagnosed with an intolerance, I felt tired all the time," she said. "It would take me forever to recover." Now she fuels up with quinoa and rice-based breads and pastas. Fellow pro triathlete and celiac sufferer Desiree Ficker said she knows she has to avoid wheat to stay competitive. "After trying several brands, I've found many gluten-free breads and cereals that I like. I also eat more rice and sweet potatoes and bake my own treats," Ficker said. "It's only hard when I'm traveling because airports don't have a lot of options."
But will going gluten-free give all athletes an extra edge? No, said Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., an Atlanta-based sports dietitian. "It will only help those who are truly sensitive to gluten, but it won't benefit those who aren't." She adds that many people also make the mistake of assuming wheat-free cookies and other packaged goods are healthier, but that's not the case. Bottom line: Scan labels and pick those with the best nutritional stats, whether or not they contain gluten.