Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the Final Of The Gentlemen’s Singles at Wimbledon on July 12, 2015. (Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic, the number-one ranked tennis player in the world defeated Roger Federer in an epic Wimbledon final on Sunday — but he nearly didn’t get there at all. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from his book, Serve to Win, Djokovic explains how going gluten-free took him from second tier to the top of the rankings — and shows how you can do it, too.
“THIS IS A TEST THAT WILL help us see if your body is sensitive to certain foods,” Dr. Cetojevic told me.
We were not in a hospital or lab or doctor’s office. He was not drawing blood. There were no scanning devices or big, scary pieces of medical equipment. It was July 2010, at a tournament in Croatia, and Igor Cetojevic, M.D., a holistic practitioner from my native Serbia, was explaining to me that he thought he knew why I’d fallen apart so many times in the past, and how I could change my diet, my body, and my life for the better. Then he had me do something very strange.
He had me place my left hand on my belly, and put my right arm straight out to the side.
Djokovic celebrates at Wimbledon. (Photo: Getty Images)
“I want you to resist the pressure,” he said as he pushed down on my right arm. After a moment, he stopped. “This is what your body should feel like,” he said.
Then, he gave me a slice of bread. Should I eat it?
“No,” he said, and laughed. “Hold it against your stomach, and put your right arm out again.” Once more, he pushed down on my arm, explaining to me that this crude test would tell me whether or not I was sensitive to gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other common bread grains.
This seemed like madness.
And yet, there was a noticeable difference. With the bread against my stomach, my arm struggled to resist Dr. Cetojevic’s downward pressure. I was noticeably weaker.
“This is a sign that your body is rejecting the wheat in the bread,” he said. I had never heard the term “gluten intolerant,” but I had just taken the first steps in learning how big a role food had played in my life, how much my wheat-based diet had been holding me back — and how much was in my power to change.
Dr. Cetojevic then explained to me that there were other, more scientific and more accurate ways of testing my sensitivities to certain foods. The best and most accurate is the ELISA test, which stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. It’s a common blood test that’s used for everything from drug testing to diagnosing malaria and HIV to testing for food allergies.
The ELISA test can teach us very specific things about our bodies’ sensitivities to food. The most common sensitivities are to gluten, dairy, eggs, pork, soy, and nuts. Some of us have unusual sensitivities, or unexpected combinations of them; for example, my trainer, Miljan Amanovic, tested sensitive to pineapple and egg white. But once you know what you’re sensitive to, you can make dramatic changes almost effortlessly. (By eliminating just these two foods, Miljan lost 10 pounds in only a few weeks.)
Related: 7 Best Foods for Rapid Weight Loss!
When my blood test returned, the results were shocking: I was strongly intolerant to wheat and dairy, and had a mild sensitivity to tomatoes as well.
“If you want your body to respond the way you’d like it to, you will need to stop eating bread,” Cetojevic said. “Stop eating cheese. Cut down on tomatoes.”
“But Doctor,” I replied. “My parents own a pizza parlor!”
The idea of giving up bread and other gluten-containing foods — foods that were so precious to me, so ingrained in my life, my family, and my culture — was scary.
Then Dr. Cetojevic explained that I shouldn’t pledge to give up bread forever. As the saying goes, forever is a very long time. “Two weeks,” he said. “You give it up for fourteen days, and then you call me.”
It was hard at first. I craved the soft, chewy, comforting feel of bread. I craved crunchy pizza dough, sweet rolls, and all the foods that I learned contained wheat, things I had never suspected.
For the first week or so, I craved these foods, but I focused each day on staying disciplined, and fortunately, my family and friends — even though they thought I was crazy — supported me in my quest. But as the days rolled along, I began to feel different. I felt lighter, more energetic. The nighttime stuffiness I had lived with for fifteen years suddenly disappeared.
By the end of the first week, I no longer wanted rolls and cookies and breads; it was as if a lifelong craving had miraculously abated. Every day for the next week, I woke up feeling as though I’d had the best night’s sleep of my life. I was beginning to believe.
And that’s when Dr. Cetojevic suggested I eat a bagel.
This was the true test, he explained. Eliminate a food for fourteen days, then eat it and see what happens. And remarkably, the day after I introduced gluten back into my diet, I felt like I’d spent the night drinking whiskey! I was sluggish getting out of bed, just as I had been during my teenage years. I was dizzy.
My stuffiness was back. I felt as though I’d woken up with a hangover.
“This is the proof,” the doctor said. “This is what your body is giving you to show you it’s intolerant.” And I pledged from that moment on that whatever my body told me, I’d listen.
And see how delicious this meal plan can be by trying out this smoothie recipe as a snack. It’s one of the foods that helped Djokovic improve his game and become the number-one tennis player in the world.
BLUEBERRY ALMOND BUTTER SMOOTHIE
2 cups frozen blueberries
1 frozen banana
2 tbsp almond butter
1 cup fresh spinach
2 cups unsweetened almond milk
In a large blender, purée the blueberries, banana, almond butter, spinach, and almond milk until fully combined. Pour into four glasses and serve immediately.
If necessary, stop the blender to scrape the sides with a spatula, then resume blending until smooth.
FOR MORE about how Djokovic got to number one, and how you can feel like a winner by changing your diet, click here to buy Serve to Win!
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