As a nutritionist, I recommend following a Paleo Template and placing food QUALITY ahead of all else. As far as elite tennis players go, the Novak Djokovic diet, which is free of gluten, dairy, sugar, preservatives and everything unnatural comes very close with a few minor exceptions that are primarily due to his heavy, 14 hour per day, training schedule.
I read Djokovic’s book, Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence and this guy is a machine, mentally and physically. How he trains, keeps chasing his dreams and how he surrounds himself with family and true friends is the embodiment of my personal mantra, “100% Focus On Happiness”, which starts with phenomenal health.
We’re going to start with why Djokovic went gluten free and his journey to clean paleo-style eating, his tips for implementing a new diet and nutrition plan for tennis players (not a quick diet scheme) and some of my additional thoughts on nutrition for tennis players based on the recommendations in his book. Finally, we’ll wrap it up with some recipes from Djokovic and my secret family vault.
How Going Gluten Free Made Djokovic No. 1
As recounted in his book, Serve to Win, in 2011, Novak Djokovic had what many sports writers referred to as the most dominant season ever (on the men’s side, with all due respect to Serena William’s exceptional years) winning ten titles, three Grand Slams (the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open) and 43 consecutive matches.
His lifelong goal since the age of 6 after watching Pete Sampras win at Wimbledon was to become number 1 in the world and win Wimbledon himself and he accomplished both in 2011 within days of each other. Just a year earlier, these dreams seemed to be slipping away due to a then unknown cause that was attributed to asthma, allergies, being out of shape and/or lacking a strong mental game.
Djokovic hit his self-described “professional low” in January 2010 while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. In that match, his body totally broke down in the fourth set (as had happened so many times in the past mid-match) causing Djokovic to become short of breath and vomit.
His mates on the ATP Tour often mocked him for his lack of physical and/or mental conditioning because his body would regularly give out on him mid-tournament.
At this time, Djokovic’s diet routine consisted of “plenty of Italian food like pizza, pasta, and especially bread, as well as heavy meat dishes a couple times a day.” During matches, he would eat ‘high energy’ candy bars and drink sugary ‘sports drinks’ for energy.
He tried everything to improve his conditioning to overcome his collapses on the court including increasing his physical training, and relocating to the desert in Abu Dhabi to train in the heat to become better acclimated.
By chance, a nutritionist from his home nation of Serbia, Dr. Igor Cetojevic was watching the fateful match against Tsonga and knew instinctively that it wasn’t asthma, stomach bug or anything else the commentators were attributing the collapse to.
He knew Novak Djokovic’s diet was responsible for his performance issues on the court.
Gluten, a protein found primarily in grains (especially wheat) and hidden in many other commercial food products, was causing digestive issues that led to toxins building up in his system.
His Secret to Success – Getting Started with the Gluten Free Diet Plan
“This seemed liked madness,” is what Djokovic was thinking when Dr. Cetojevic told him to hold a slice of bread against his stomach. As he recounts in Serve to Win, when Djokovic put the piece of bread on his stomach and resisted the pressure that Dr. Cetojevic was applying to his arm, his arm became significantly weaker.
Through additional and more sophisticated testing, such as the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test, Djokovic was able to determine that he had an intolerance for dairy and tomatoes in addition to gluten. For a guy whose parents own a pizza parlor, this was shocking to say the least.
Upon eliminating gluten from his diet, Djokovic almost instantly had more energy, less aches and pains, and slept significantly better. After a couple gluten free weeks, he had a bagel and the next morning, all the previous symptoms returned and he was left feeling like he had a hangover.
In his book, Novak Djokovic advocates for taking things slowly when adjusting your diet and states plainly that his diet is not for everyone. What he does encourage is for you to try the recommendations he makes for 2 weeks, one at a time, and then do as he did and revert to your old eating habits for a day to see how you feel.
First we’re going to do an overview of Djokovic’s diet plan shared in Serve to Win and then I’m going to make some recommendations for a very similar diet plan that is most likely better suited to help you attain your goals of fat loss and overall health.
Why don’t I think you should follow his plan exactly??? He’s the best in the world!
Novak Djokovic is one of the world’s top conditioned athletes who literally has a team of coaches, trainers and nutritionists following him around the globe. As an elite athlete who trains 14 hours per day and is competing 11 months out of the year against similarly conditioned athletes, it is fair to say that his nutritional requirements may differ from the typical reader of this article who is a weekend warrior spending 50 hours a week in an office. I’ll help you with that!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, or a medical practitioner in any shape, form, or variety. NOTHING in this article represents medical advice, nor is intended to treat, cure, or mitigate any disease. N0 matter how much fun any of my ideas relating to diet, exercise, or lifestyle might sound, you MUST seek medical advice before making changes to your diet or embarking on any exercise program.
The Novak Djokovic Diet – Foods Not to Eat
At a high level, Novak Djokovic’s diet and nutrition plan means no gluten, dairy, refined sugars, preservatives or processed foods. These are all anti-nutrients and your first step in creating your new tennis player’s diet and nutrition plan is to eliminate these bad boys (especially gluten) from your diet.
What is an “anti-nutrient”? They are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. These protective mechanisms, basically specially formed proteins, are toxic to the human body and can cause havoc to the lining of the human gut, which is not evolved or equipped to deal with them.
Havoc such as increasing gut permeability (how much and what passes from our intestines into our blood stream), causing micro trauma to the walls of our intestine, increasing inflammation, and in some cases, directly punching holes through the walls of your colon, allowing undigested food and even fecal matter directly into your bloodstream! (YES! That is a VERY bad thing!)
Gut health is extremely, extremely important. Not only is more than 70% of your immune system (excluding your skin) directly related to your Gastro Intestinal tract, but issues with gut health and your corresponding ability to correctly absorb nutrients affects EVERYTHING in your body.
Going Gluten Free
I believe gluten is the king of all anti-nutrients. Djokovic has a great list in Serve to Win of foods that contain gluten. The biggies are bread, wheat pasta and noodles, baked goods, crackers, cereals and many alcoholic beverages.
Simple enough, right? WRONG.
The thing with gluten is that industrial food companies have hid the stuff in all kinds of processed foods, which is why you should avoid these entirely. Even certain “healthy foods” like veggie burgers and roasted nuts can contain gluten. STAY AWAY FROM PROCESSED FOODS!
Gluten also causes inflammation. Now inflammation in of itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, our body’s natural inflammatory response is something we need to be living healthy. When it becomes a constant part of your physiology, is when serious problems arise. It’s a lot similar to stress. A dose of ‘fight or flight’ when you made a wrong turn down a dark alley is a good thing, feeling like that all the time isn’t.
You don’t want the inflammatory response in your body to become Chronic Systemic Inflammation, which has been associated with factors leading to life changing health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, obesity, and depression. It’s something that you need to be aware of to take proper action to safeguard your health.
Unlike dairy, gluten should be completely eliminated from your diet… forever if possible. Even if you aren’t intolerant, it still wreaks havoc on your system by damaging your gut and as a major contributor to chronic inflammation as the king of anti-nutrients.
Going Dairy Free
I recommend cutting out dairy for 30 days to allow your body to reset and determine if you are lactose intolerant. After the 30 days (and after you hit any fat loss goals), you can try adding a little bit of dairy BUT from organic, grass-fed and un-pasteurized sources only.
How do you know if you are lactose intolerant? People who are lactose intolerant don’t create enough lactase – the enzyme that helps digest the main sugar in dairy products. So the lactose seeps through the small intestine and causes gas, bloating, and even worse effects. If after eliminating dairy and gluten from your diet for 30 days, you add dairy back in and feel these effects, you are most likely lactose intolerant.
If you do re-incorporate dairy into your diet, try to stick to full fat products that have been through a fermentation process and contain live cultures. This excludes milk, but includes yogurts and certain cheeses. Again, make sure it is grass fed and free of any sugars or other additives.
Keep in mind reincorporating dairy will make it much more difficult to lose fat (or maintain fat loss) than if you eliminate all dairy (with the exception of grass fed butter), and I recommend you stay off it if you can.
Going Sugar Free and Eliminating Processed Foods
You can view your gut as having both good bacteria and bad bacteria. The key is in feeding the good bacteria the stuff they crave and NOT FEEDING the bad bacteria. In fact we want to starve the bad ones.
If you feed the bad bacteria, even a little bit, the stuff that causes them to rapidly multiply, they will kill the good bacteria. The good ones absolutely love whole foods and the micronutrients they provide. They especially get a boost from foods rich in probiotics (I’ll share with you some powerful ones in a moment) and prebiotics.
And the bad bacteria? They have quite the sweet tooth!
The bad bacteria viciously thrive, and spread like wildfire, when you eat too much SUGAR, highly refined carbs and processed foods. And when the bad bacteria overwhelm the good bacteria, it’s bad news for the your gut wall.
If your gut wall gets damaged enough, foreign toxins, germs, and other crap (literally) from the foods you eat can get across the gut wall and into your body! The result? Your Immune System comes in to save the day and launches a full on attack on the toxic foreign invaders spilling in from your gut to your body.
However, there are innocent casualties. Your body’s healthy cells can get caught in the cross fire, causing your body to literally attack itself. When this becomes commonplace in your body is when you’re immune systems become compromised. Over time, you’ll put yourself at a higher risk for autoimmune disorders such as:
- Hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s (your thyroid hormone production becomes dangerously low, zapping your energy on the tennis court and zest for life)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Chronic and systemic inflammation in the digestive tract – extremely uncomfortable)
- Type 1 diabetes
- And Multiple Sclerosis (more on this below)
What does the research say? Scientists from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Department of Neurology) have made some breakthrough associations between your gut health and autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, stating: “The gut bacteria play a role in educating the immune system and hence may be a player in the development of multiple sclerosis.”
Now this is just one of many revealing scientific cases linking your gut health and your immunity (you will be seeing even more findings like this in the future).
Need something sweet? Use locally sourced organic honey or maple syrup instead! Djokovic starts each day with a couple spoonfuls of manuka honey due to its antibacterial properties.
The Novak Djokovic Diet – Foods to Eat to Transform Your Body
We’re going to go through Novak Djokovic’s “food groups” from Serve to Win one by one.. This is where we will diverge a little from his tennis nutrition plan due to the vast discrepancy in his nutritional needs as the number 1 tennis player in the world versus yours (no offense).
Meat, Fish and Eggs
Djokovic lists these first and so do I. It is critically important to only consume these protein sources from clean, healthy animals.
What does that mean?
It means that you should only be eating grass-fed beef, non-farmed fish, free range poultry, game meats and free range eggs to ensure your animal protein has the correct balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
According to the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, omega 3’s both directly and indirectly decrease the production of inflammatory agents that feed the pro-inflammatory pathways of your body, resulting in decreased Chronic Systemic Inflammation and omega 6’s tend to promote more pro-inflammatory pathways throughout your body.
Omega 6’s aren’t all bad and can be good for you in the right amounts. In fact a lot of healthy foods contain Omega 6’s such as poultry, eggs, avocado, nuts and seeds, however in infinitely smaller amounts than processed foods or refined vegetable oils.
A typical diet that includes gluten and protein from unhealthy animals is massively imbalanced, containing about 15-20 times as many omega 6 fatty acids as omega 3’s, when this ratio should be 1 to 1.
What about eating grain fed meat? Avoid it whenever budget and availability allow; those cows are unhealthy and have a messed up omega 3 to omega 6 ratio (omega 6 heavy, frequently higher than 1:20), but if you have limited options, eating grain fed ruminants is STILL BETTER than not eating this way. However, for grain fed meat go for the leanest cut you can (the fat on grain fed meat is BAD). So cut the FAT OFF grain fed meat, go for the leanest cuts. There are similar issues with farmed fished, industrial chickens, etc.
Whenever possible, stick to the naturally raised meats, fish and eggs and eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (don’t count any extra pounds of fat you are carrying). If you don’t like counting (And I don’t like counting, so this is how I recommend you do it), eat your protein until you are about 75-80% full.
After you get your protein in, move on to the veggies. Just close out the meal and keep chomping until you are no longer hungry. You will get a TON of micronutrient goodness with very few calories, so seriously, eat away until you are nicely satisfied! Here are my favorites:
- Baby Bok Choy
- Brussel Sprouts
- String Beans
- Mixed Greens
You can do these as a stir-fry, steamed veggies, raw veggies, a big fresh salad, a stew, soup or whatever makes you happy. Just watch sauces (see below). Please make sure you cycle through the veggie choices, and don’t be afraid to add plenty more, variety rocks, and there can be too much of a good thing.
Again, Djokovic is right on with fruit saying, “I eat fruit, but in a controlled way so I don’t overload myself with sugar. Still, if you’re going to have sugar, the natural fructose in fruit is the better kind. Plus, fruit delivers nutrients. I especially love berries of all kinds, but in small servings.”
The best time to have any fruit is straight after a workout, when your body is primed to both utilize the sugars in the fruit to replenish glucose in your muscles (as opposed to padding your waistline) and keep your insulin levels low, however if you throw a piece of fruit on the table for dessert, I am ok with that and it definitely adds some variety.
Grains and Carbs (Gluten-Free)
Now, this is 1 of 2 sections where Djokovic’s diet plan may not be the best fit for the vast majority of tennis players (unless your last name is Federer, Murray, Wawrinka or you are otherwise training full time for a year round professional sport).
Djokovic eats primarily carbohydrates (his favorites are quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and oats) for breakfast and lunch to fuel his massive energy needs from 14 hour training days and then loads up on protein at dinner to recover.
For you, take down some carbs post workout or match in the form of tubers. This equals yams, sweet potatoes, taro and yucca. You can also eat rice based dishes, like Pad Thai, provided they follow the other nutritional guidelines. For a ‘cheat meal’ savory tacos on a non-GMO corn tortilla are one of my favorites. If you are chasing fat loss or trying to maintain fat loss without a heavy training schedule, you should skip this section entirely.
Nuts and Seeds
Just remember to go easy on these and treat them as condiments because of their Omega 6 fatty acid content and caloric density. Too much of these may promote the onset of chronic inflammation (something we should all avoid). If you are a nut hog, leave them out.
If not, keep it raw and varied with brazil nuts, macadamias, cashews, almonds and walnuts. And remember, a peanut is NOT a nut!
Healthy Oils and Fats
After you get your real food protein down, the second most important thing is to ensure you are getting some healthy, quality fats at every meal. Again, feel free to leave the FAT ON when eating grass-fed ruminants or wild game. This is clean fat and GOOD FOR YOU, and very good for your fat loss.
For cooking use coconut oil (low to high heat), grass-fed organic ghee, or in the animal’s own fat (or rendered lard from grass-fed animals, if you can find it). Olive oil can also be used for cooking at a low temp only. Those stuck with grain-fed meat, can cook in grass-fed butter if they want to.
Other than coconut oil (with impunity), olive oil, macadamia oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil, ALL OTHER VEGETABLE OILS are making you fat, inflamed, and unhealthy and they ARE BANNED FOR LIFE.
This is 2 of 2 where I slightly digress from Djokovic, but not for the same reasons as grains. While legumes are by far a “lesser evil” when compared to gluten, the anti-nutrient content (lignans, lectin, saponins) rules them out for me.
However, Djokovic likes them and if are going to diverge from this plan, this isn’t the worst way to do it. If you feel like you have to have them for your new tennis player’s diet, stick to ones that are sprouted and cooked to minimize the anti-nutrient impacts on your system.
Condiments, Herbs and Spices
Traditional condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing and blue cheese are full of preservatives, sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other toxic ingredients. Stay away from these and stick to things like mustard, horseradish, vinegar, hot sauces and salsa.
Herbs and spices are great and can be used to keep things un-boring and add a lot of variety to your more limited diet.
Check the labels on everything to make sure it isn’t loaded with preservatives and other additives though.
Fermented Foods (Bonus)
These aren’t in Serve to Win, but fermented foods (if natural and preservative-free) present some of the best ways to feed your body probiotics, naturally and dairy free. (The Chinese have been fermenting cabbage for over six thousand years and prescribing it for various illnesses). Some good choices include:
- Raw Kim Chi (must be raw as cooking kills the probiotics)
- Raw Saurakraut
- Kefir (especially coconut kefir)
What’s great about fermented foods is that they are VERY potent (some containing as much as 10 trillion colony forming units of bacteria in a large portion). However that potency can mean that some of you will experience GI distress if suddenly adding too much fermented food to your diet, so begin slowly.
On the Court
When you are on the tennis court in between sets, you need to stay hydrated and if it is a long match, you might need a snack as well. Bananas are a staple on the ATP tour and can give you clean, sustained energy without a crash. Dried fruit or a handful of raw nuts are also good choices.
To stay hydrated, water is always a strong (and obvious) choice. But what about sports drinks? The popular brands contain a lot of the things that we are trying to avoid like refined sugars, preservatives and other additives, so I would recommend staying away from these entirely.
To replenish electrolytes and salt that is depleted when you sweat, try making your own sports drink with water, citrus juice (lemon is best), honey, sea salt and even a little tea. There are a lot of great quick and easy recipes if you search for “paleo sports drinks” on the web.
Healthy Gluten Free Recipes
In Serve to Win, Djokovic shares an entire week of meal plans and the recipes for many of them. Generally, he has a “Power Bowl” with gluten-free grains, nuts, fruits, coconut oil and non-dairy milk (rice, almond, coconut, etc.) for breakfast, gluten-free pasta and veggies for lunch, a protein shake, and then meat or fish with veggies for dinner.
If you want the full details on those, you’ll have to check out the book, but below is one of his favorite smoothie recipes that he shared on Twitter and a couple of my favorite Novak Djokovic Diet (and paleo) compliant recipes courtesy of my little sister, Elisa Ashenden, who also happens to be a food writer for the Huffington Post.
Novak Djokovic’s Special Pre-Match Smoothie Recipe
And now, a special message from the man himself…
“This is how I start off my day, preparing a smoothie that will help me fight off the stress and give my body enough nutrients. There’s a lot of stuff there, lot of minerals, lot of vitamins, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, good sources of omega 3. I encourage you to take care of what you eat and stay healthy.”
But he doesn’t say what is in there! Fear not…
Now on to my favorites straight from Elisa…
Marinated Pork Tenderloin (Cumin and Turmeric)
I always at least double this recipe, if not quadruple it, as it tastes amazing cold and is delicious served at breakfast with eggs, or cut up and enjoyed with a salad for lunch. Economical, quick and easy to prepare.
- 600gm/20 ounce (or thereabouts) pork tenderloin
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 heaped tsp cumin powder
- 1 tsp whole cumin
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ lemon, rind only
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp coarse rock salt
Heat the oven to 200 deg C/ 390 deg F
Trim any excess fat from the tenderloin to your taste. Combine all the ingredients in a marinating dish big enough to lay the tenderloin out flat. You can use a roasting dish if nothing else fits. Roll the pork around in the marinade to coat well. Leave for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Heat a frying pan to high and brown the tenderloin on all sides until it is golden all over. This will take about 3-4 minutes. You won’t need to add oil to the pan as there is enough coating the pork from the marinade.
Place the pork in a roasting tray and scrape any remaining marinade or pan juices over it. Cook for 20-25 minutes until the fattest part of the loin shows a soft pink colour if you test it with a knife, but there is no blood gushing out. (Pork can, and should in my opinion, be served slightly pink in the centre)
Rest the meat for 5-10 minutes by covering in foil before slicing. Drizzle the pork with any juices from the roasting pan and serve with salad, greens or sweet potato mash.
Japanese Fusion Steak (Ginger and Chili)
Having grown up in Japan, this dish is a version of something my mother used to make us almost weekly. Even decades later, none of us can get enough of it. Case in point, this dish is so yummy, I once made it for a friend who had specifically told me she didn’t like steak. I challenged her to keep to that opinion after trying one bite. (I did have something else for her to eat in case my experiment failed). She tried it…and not only finished it, but asked for the recipe and has subsequently served this to her guests!
Japanese Fusion Steak calls for Coconut Aminos or Tamari (traditional fermented gluten-free soy sauce). I prefer it with Tamari but the coconut aminos are more compliant so it is up to you (if you use aminos, add a pinch of salt to the marinade). You can use this marinade with chicken and it works beautifully too, and is magic on the BBQ. If you want leftovers or more economy, make extra steaks (and increase marinade accordingly) then slice the steak the next day and serve cold over salad.
- 2 large rib-eye steaks (or any cut you enjoy most)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 heaped tbs grated ginger
- ½ tsp finely chopped fresh red chili (more if you love spice)
- 1 tbs sesame oil
- 5 tbs coconut aminos or tamari
- 1tsp coconut oil
Combine all the ingredients except the steak and coconut oil in a dish that is large enough to lay the steaks out flat. Add the steaks and turn them over a few times to coat them well. Leave at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Set a frying pan to high (as high as it goes). Add the coconut oil and when it is searing hot add the steaks (open the windows, you might get some smoke in the next few minutes but you will thank me later). Do not pour in the liquid of the marinade, but set it aside.
Grind some fresh black pepper over the top while they are cooking. Presuming your steaks are approximately 2cm or ¾ inch thick, cook them 2-3 minutes on each side for medium rare, more for medium and 1.5-2 minutes or less each side for rare (timings vary according to steak thickness so use this as a general rule only).
In the final minute, add all the remaining marinade to the pan. Serve with Sweet Potato Mash, Greens of any kind or a huge salad.
Nutrition Rules for Health, Fat Loss and Happiness
There are a lot of great eating programs out there. I have my own “Complete 30 Day Fat Loss Plan” and there are many others that I am a big fan of that will get you to that ideal weight. Whether you chose the Novak Djokovic diet from Serve to Win or something else, I would like to leave you with these nutritional principles that were universal across all the good literature I have read:
- EAT for nutrient density
- EAT to improve gut absorption of nutrients
- EAT a macro nutrient profile that lends itself to improved body composition and less disease
- EAT sufficient quantity of quality food to deliver your body its macro and micro nutrient requirements
- DO NOT EAT anti-nutrients
- DO NOT EAT foods that harm you
If you do these, you will live longer, feel healthier, have far lower incidence of disease and gain a competitive advantage against your pizza eating opponent on the tennis court!