The God of Death for many athletes

In 2011, Novak Djokovic became the hottest tennis player on the men’s tour, winning 43 of 44 matches. His secret? The 24-year-old Serb credits his remarkable breakthrough to a simple dietary change: He stopped eating gluten.

Novak Djokovic... living on gluten-free diet.   -  AP

Every athlete retires at some point in his career. Sometimes it’s voluntary, or it’s by circumstances. It’s best to have a long shelf life, maximising your wins and maintaining the desire to keep playing. Over the years at my nutrition clinics I have seen sportspersons’ careers come to a premature end due to injury or non-performance. A lot of it can be attributed to weak genes, ‘chaltai hai’ attitude or an improper sports diet. When one breaks down nutrition in the diet, an athlete will realise that it lacks the right molecules or there are molecules that may be destroying him/her. A new kid on the block over the last few years in the nutrition textbooks that is destroying athletes has been a protein molecule called gluten. In the last three years, I have identified and tried to convince over a 100 athletes after testing that they are gluten intolerant or sensitive.

So is gluten good or bad? Well let’s classify gluten as the Grim Reaper or Yama, the messenger of death. But not every athlete receives the mandate of an early end to a career. Gluten in Latin means glue and it’s a storage protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats.

Gluten or this sticky protein for centuries has been hybridised into these crops as its visco-elastic properties give bread dough its elasticity and wonderful chewy texture. Bread over the centuries has become one of the most loved baking products. Today gluten from wheat and barley can be found in bread, biscuits, buns, pizza bases, and just about every product on the planet including noodles. In fact gluten is a protein complex that accounts for 75 to 85% of the total protein in bread wheat.

In 2011, Novak Djokovic became the hottest tennis player on the men’s tour, winning 43 of 44 matches. His secret? The 24-year-old Serb credits his remarkable breakthrough to a simple dietary change: He stopped eating gluten. A Serb doctor noticed symptoms in Novak that were classic to gluten intolerance. Some of the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance noticed in athletes include gas, abdominal bloating, stomach pain, diarrhoea and even nausea or vomiting. If left untreated it can severely hamper an athlete’s development and future health.

 

SYMPTOMS THAT YOU MAY BE ALLERGIC TO GLUTEN?

  • Bloating

  • Diarrhoea, constipation & smelly faeces

  • Iron deficiency anaemia

  • Dandruff and pimples

  • Brain fog

  • Skin problems

  • Joint and muscle aches

  • Extreme fatigue


  • Low immunity

  • Dental issues

  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain

  • Migraine

  • Depression and anxiety

  • ADHD

  • Autoimmune disease

  • Hormonal imbalance and adrenal fatigue

I have noticed that teenage athletes suffer stomach and bowel movement issues that they never talk about to their parents or coaches. As these athletes move into adulthood, it’s too sensitive an issue to discuss with peers and support staff. One of the first questions I ask an athlete is how well do they take a dump? And then I proceed to ask hilarious questions on the art of their potty.

This leads me to signs of whether or not we should do gluten DNA or blood test. One is a blood test called Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA) — The tTG-IgA test will be positive in about 98% of patients who are on a gluten-containing diet. But a lot of times symptoms and factors never really present themselves. Early diagnosis of gluten intolerance helps in improving your performance. A new and simple saliva based gluten test kit (no blood sample needed) is available for diagnosis of gluten intolerance. There are two genes in the body — DQ2 or DQ8 of the HLA molecules that indicate gluten intolerance or risk for celiac disease. With gene based gluten intolerance test you can identify risk factors even in the absence of symptoms, thus acting as an advance alert for your career as a sportsman.

When I work with an athlete my sole aim with them is to determine the best possible nutrition and diet. Determine all possible allergens and triggers that may prevent an athlete from reaching peak potential. I have noticed that hemoglobin, ESR, vitamin and minerals level improve when athletes go off gluten, post a positive test result.

But not everyone is gluten intolerant and therefore to eat bread and chapattis is perfectly normal for them. The issue here is to have the knowledge. Know in advance about your allergies. In the later part of a sportsperson’s career it helps in better recovery and energy levels.

In India, the issue is not very prevalent. In my clinic we have two in 10 athletes who are gluten intolerant. Over the years I have recommended key athletes who have tested positive to go gluten-free. Golfers Shubhankar Sharma, Trishul Chinappa and cricketer Shikhar Dhawan have all been advised post their tests to go gluten-free. I suspect even Virat Kohli is being advised to go gluten-free. However, it is a challenge. They find it difficult, especially when travelling.

I remember when a top cricketer was told he had to stop eating wheat, being a north Indian, his mother scoffed at me saying “We ate wheat all our lives and we own 100 bhigas of wheat plantation, You are speaking nonsense.” We are not finding these issues as yet in large numbers because as a nation we are still eating our dhal, rice and roti in correct form. Athletic nutrition and diet planning is in embryonic stage at this point. For now we are hopefully safe as in India we generally use the ancient or diploid wheat (e.g. Triticum monococcum) which is not so allergic. But a food scientist recently confirmed to me that this is changing as there is now rampant use of genetically modified wheat over the last ten years. These new wheat variants are more allergic.

 

LIST OF GLUTEN-FREE FOODS

Rice

All Fruits

Corn

All Vegetables

Channa or Besan

Millets

Meat

Eggs

Milk, Curd and Cheese

Potato

Soy

Beans & Dhals

Buckwheat

Amaranth

Chia & Flaxseeds

Gluten-Free Oats

Quinoa

Dry Fruits

 

Once a swimmer came up to me and asked “Why is there a gluten-free kitchen at the Commonwealth Games and why all the White athletes are eating there? Is this their special power?” This swimmer was advised again and again to avoid wheat and all its associated food products. It’s difficult. But post the Commonwealth Games he understood the need. We need to now move beyond equipment and infrastructure. When a player has these symptoms, simple tests and then modifications in the diet will increase performance and recovery.

P.S. I have to disclose as an author that I am gluten intolerant. I have eaten wheat all my life but now have not touched it for three years. When I do eat it, I suffer severe headaches and diarrhoea in three hours flat. So this article has been written with a bias.

Why you should test for gluten sensitivity as an athlete?

When you test, you determine the direction for planning for your sports diet. Having the right information can greatly advance the benefits of elimination of gluten which result in better digestive outcomes for the athlete.

However if one does test negative and is not allergic to gluten, research has shown that eliminating gluten has no substantive benefits to performance and recovery. So going gluten-free on a whim or fancy or because of this article is not the way forward. Test to know for sure.

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