Why did Djokovic go on gluten free diet even though he is not celiac?

My mum is celiac and has been off gluten for probably two decades now. Some people have very violent reactions to minimal exposure of it, some that can get away with small amounts. I personally met adults and children whose lives and health had a complete reset with diagnosis of gluten intolerance. At the same time a few of my sporty friends have been doing my head in banging about how we should watch out, and even if not allergic, try to limit the amount of gluten in our daily diet. But it wasn’t till now, while I actually started doing my own research, I have realized how little did I know…

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Gluten is a complex of proteins found in common grains such as wheat, barley and rye. The name actually comes from the word ‘glue’ as this particular protein is responsible for the texture of bread: the spongy, elastic, chewy texture we love. At the same time it binds water, that is why breads with high gluten content stall quicker. Remember those good old-fashioned rye breads (low gluten content) that are pretty solid after baking, but they stay fresh for a week, while the soft bun (high gluten content) from the supermarket is pretty much uneatable the following day? Nowadays a lot of bread manufacturers add extra gluten to cut down the fermentation time of the dough. This way we are not only eating the naturally occurring protein, but a fair share of extra gluten.

When we think about cereals, we immediately think – carbohydrates, however all grains contain certain proportion of protein as well. In 100g of wheat around 71% stands for carbohydrates and around 13% for protein. For a grain, wheat has a decent amount of minerals and vitamins from B group as well. Today however I want to focus on that (in) famous 13% of protein content.

There are three main gluten  related disorders:

  • Celiac disease
  • Wheat allergy
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity = Gluten intolerance

They do have gluten in the middle of the issue however the mechanics of the body responses are very different and for some unfortunately still very unclear. The amount of people diagnosed with one of them is at a sharp increase, it is difficult to judge though whether more people are getting sick, or public awareness helps accurate diagnosis. Probably it is somewhere in the middle. Here is a short summary of all three:

  • Celiac disease is a autoimmune disease, not even an allergy, in contrast to what many people think. With presence of gluten the body starts to produce antibodies attacking not only the protein but its own organs. One of the consequences is weakening of the gut tissue. In a healthy gut nutrients, that come from breaking down of different foods, are being absorbed while matter we do not need, travels further down and eventually is excreted. In case of celiac disease the gut that is under attack of its own antibodies lets other stuff get into the bloodstream that really should not be there: toxins, non-digested molecules etc. It first leads to gastrointestinal symptoms and problems with microelement absorption. On long term the research shows connection with diabetes, psoriasis, asthma and many more. The only cure: 100% elimination of gluten from the diet. An estimated 1% of population has the disease and unfortunately most of them live without being properly diagnosed. The only good news is that symptoms tend to build up and are not immediately life threatening like in the case of:
  • Wheat allergy – here symptoms can be similar to CD but the reaction is more immediate, the offset can take from minutes to hours. As in other allergies our body recognizes wheat as a threat and produces antibodies to fight it. Some people are hyper sensitive even to traces of wheat and exposure can lead to life threatening anaphylactic shock which can become a life threat within minutes of exposure.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity  (by some sources called gluten intolerance) happens when gluten makes people sick but the body does not fight itself anymore.  Here we are entering a grey zone, as it seems we do not have a full picture of the mechanism of the disease. For now the most clear diagnosis is that if we exclude the first two conditions and the patient reports an improvement in their digestive system functionality after eliminating gluten from the diet, they are diagnosed with the last one. A lot of research is studying the mechanisms of NCGS but it seems that not everyone is following the same pattern of response. This syndrome was only officially recognized in 2012 and now it is estimated that it could affect even up to 6% of the population.

So what about healthy people? It seems that especially among sportsmen and sportswomen a completely gluten-free diet or at least gluten reduction is very popular. Novak Djokovic when pushed admitted that he feels much better on a gluten-free diet despite the fact he does not have any of the gluten related disorders. So far there is no solid scientific proof that gluten is somewhat harmful to a healthy person. At the same time various surveys performed on large populations of people involved in sports on a professional level, reveal that they report reduced gastrointestinal distress, reduced inflammation, better athletic body composition, quicker recovery.

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Well, one thing is for sure: we definitely eat much more of the stuff than any generation before us. Not only we consume more gluten containing grains but food manufacturers increase its content in a lot of products. At the same time wheat has been modified to grow better, be more resilient to bugs which means we might be eating different protein mixes than we had been for thousands of years.

Not sure if it makes any difference to you, but after doing research for this post I find it much easier to turn away from puffy inflated bread and  put a good old rye loaf in my basket. At the same time I turn more frequently towards rice and vegetables for dinner inspirations. Everything in moderation, right? 🙂



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