On Sunday, June 5, 2016 Novak Djokovic won his first Roland Garros (French Open) title in Paris. Djokovic has been known for his gluten-free diet since 2011, but now he has taken it a step further by adopting a plant-based diet. Djokovic climbed to the world #1 position in 2011 and hasn't left since. For many, the world #1 Serbian player seems unstoppable, but he hasn't always been.
In 2010, a Serbian nutritionist, Dr. Igor Cetojevic, was browsing through channels and stopped on Djokovic's match against Jo-Wilifred Tsonga. Novak was up two sets to one, but started to have trouble breathing and even vomited during a bathroom break. He ended up losing that match, and many more due to similar ailments. Cetojevic reached out to Novak and recommended a gluten-free diet after discovering a gluten sensitivity. After a week, Cetojevic encouraged Novak to eat a bagel, and upon doing so, he felt sluggish and sick instantly. He knew a 100% gluten-free diet would be necessary if he wanted to rid himself of the constant on-court ailments that were preventing him from becoming a better player.
To date, Djokovic has won 11 Grand Slam titles since becoming gluten-free in 2011. That's about 2 per year. Before 2011, he had only won 1 Grand Slam. He also holds the record for most Masters Series 1000 titles, at a whopping 29, and 24 out of 29 of those were won after his change to a gluten-free diet.
Now, he has also adopted a plant-based diet. When describing his typical meals to ESPN, he said, “Breakfast is like an oatmeal, fruit, and whatever else I want to throw into it. And then lunch and dinner, a rice-and-bean kind of dish is pretty typical. Lots of veggies. A salad. I make a lot of smoothies because I can just throw greens and fruit and stuff in there. But rice and beans or lentils, stuff like that is pretty common for me.”
He even opened up a plant-based café in Monte Carlo in April 2016, just in time for the Monte Carlo Rolex 1000 Masters Series. Go, Novak!
Djokovic is a great example of how a plant-based diet is suitable for high-performance athletes and people of all ages. Many athletes eat whatever they want and have no concept of nutrition. They figure they're working out all the time and burning through calories, so it's okay to feed the body anything, right? That's not the case. When we nourish our bodies with foods naturally high in antioxidants, like plants, our bodies recover faster and we have more energy. Djokovic told ESPN, “After a point, nutrition plays a huge part in how quickly you can recover, how hard you can push yourself the next day, back-to-back days and stuff like that. I feel like it’s helped me tremendously and given me a big edge in that regard.”
Plants are anti-inflammatory, so with a plant-based diet, recovery times are drastically improved. When we feed our body junk food and empty calories, it runs on poor quality fuel and can't possibly perform at its best. Then, injuries and other problems follow. Many athletes are sidelined prematurely due to injuries and conditions which could have possibly been prevented with more attention to diet. It's no wonder the list of plant-powered athletes continues to grow.
My Transition to a Plant-Based Diet
Although not a Grand Slam champion like Novak, I too experienced a tremendous leap in my tennis game. My freshman year of college, I started out at #5 singles and #3 doubles. I climbed to #3 singles my sophomore year, but I was barely winning any matches. Not only was I mentally exhausted, but physically too. It seemed that with each loss, I was getting more and more frustrated. My freshman year I had started to transition to a pescetarian diet. I never ate fast food, and I stopped drinking soda when I was 12, but I had only started to learn about food and how it affects our health. As I began to learn more, I realized I needed to make a change. I was waking up daily with congestion from eating cheese the night before. So, I gave up fish and started to phase out cheese. The incredibly thing that I always tell my clients is that the human taste buds have the ability to change every 14 days, so we can literally retrain our tongues to desire certain foods and dislike others. After 3 weeks of not eating cheese, I decided to try it, and I realized I no longer craved it. So, for everyone reading this that thinks it would be impossible to give up cheese, it's not! I did it, and you can too. Milk wasn't too difficult to give up, since I only ever ate it with oatmeal in the morning and it is really easy to find plant-based substitutes or make your own. I could no longer justify drinking the milk from another species, it just didn't make sense. Milk is designed to fatten up baby calves in the first few weeks of their lives, so what do you think it does to humans? It's deceiving because those percentages represent the proportion of milk, by weight, made up of butterfat. However, 21% of calories in 1% milk are from fat, 35% in 2% milk and whole milk (3.5-4%) is about 40%+ fat.
After giving up these foods, it became much easier to transition fully into a plant-based diet by my senior year. I realized my body felt so much better and I moved lighter than ever on the court. I outlasted my opponents, and my losing streak quickly turned around. I went from #3 singles and #2 doubles to #1 singles and #1 doubles. My recovery times improved immensely, and I no longer got sore after playing long matches like I used to. My acne cleared up and after one year of eating plant-based, my stigmatism and 20/40 in left eye was restored and I had 20/20 in both eyes again. I used to say I could never be vegan, but that was before I knew anything about the food I was putting into my body, and I have never looked back. We can't control many things in life, but we are in control of our health.
Congratulations again to Novak Djokovic on his Roland Garros win and I wish him all the best on his plant-based, gluten-free journey!