Give it two weeks. That's what I suggest. Avoid gluten for fourteen days and see how you feel. Then, on day fifteen, have some bread and see what happens. ... I've managed to stay gluten-free and eat a healthy, balanced, satisfying diet that fuels a professional tennis career -- and I probably have far less control over my schedule and where I eat than you do. You can take control over your diet, and your life.
-- Novak Djokovic in his memoir/diet book: "Serve to Win"
Standing in the kitchen, I held my right arm out straight while my wife applied pressure and tried to push it down. It was easy for me to resist and keep the arm straight. Then I held a slice of white bread against my stomach and held my right arm out again. When my wife applied pressure this time, my resistance dropped more dramatically than Rafael Nadal's world ranking.
What the hell was I doing? In preparation for the French Open, I was beginning the Novak Djokovic gluten-free diet he writes about in his book, "Serve to Win." The world's best player attributes his success to going gluten-free and suggests everyone give it a try for two weeks.
"It did change my life," he said this week at Roland Garros. "Ever since 2010, I have been very much evolving in terms of food, in terms of finding out new ways to improve my health. I think generally in today's society, people tend to speak about how sick we can get and all the different illnesses that can cause us to feel bad. But nobody talks about how healthy can we really be."
Djokovic says he learned he had a celiac allergy (which affects roughly six percent of the population) after a doctor tried the above arm test. He, too, found his resistance dropped considerably when he held a slice of bread to his stomach, which the doctor told him indicated he might be allergic to gluten.
Sounds absolutely ludicrous, doesn't it? Djokovic acknowledged as much and I was extremely dubious when I read the passage. But then I had the same thing happen to me while my wife noticed no difference when she took the arm test. I still was (and am) very dubious, but part of me was interested to see how going gluten-free for two weeks would affect me.
Other than driving me crazy with hunger.
Forget the weird arm thing -- I don't have an issue with gluten. I love gluten. Pizza, pasta, bread, bagels, cookies, cake, pie -- pretty much anything with wheat. And the more, the tastier.
Djokovic liked gluten as well. In fact, his parents ran a pizza restaurant in Serbia when he was growing up (it now serves gluten-free pizza). Going gluten free clearly helped him -- not only is there no better player on the circuit, I can't think of a leaner player, either. He is one of the best, healthiest athletes in the world. So maybe a little less pumpkin pie is a healthy way to go.
I especially felt this way when I weighed myself at the start of the diet and was annoyed to see 165 pounds, which was several pounds higher than normal.
Maybe I did need to go gluten free. Or at least cookie free.
Let's say you give eating gluten-free a shot for two weeks. What can you expect? Depending on how big a roll wheat plays in your diet -- and remember, the average person gets 20 percent of his or her calories from wheat -- you may experience some withdrawal symptoms. You'll need to manage those two weeks: Don't go to the mall and sniff the Cinnabons. You'll just torture yourself.
-- Djokovic in "Serve to Win"
Djokovic writes that a gluten-free diet still provides a vast array of food to eat. He's right. During my two-week diet, I dined on steak, Copper River salmon, lamb burgers, omelets and bratwurst (certified gluten-free by the butcher). Salad, spinach, quinoa, basil and carrots. Cheese, hummus and rice crackers. I didn't even have to change my breakfast, which is routinely a bowl of rice pocket cereal and a smoothie.
(While most beer is forbidden, wine and whiskey are allowed, the latter of which came in very handy watching the final episode of "Mad Men.")
Still, you need to be careful. The first day on the Djoker diet, I ate a chicken sandwich on gluten-free bread, carnitas on a corn tortilla and some salad. The meals were tasty and I felt good. And then the next morning I learned the salad, of all things, had wheat berries in it. So that day did not count, meaning I would have to go an extra day without pie.
The bigger problem is when you come across the sight and aroma of gluten. Which is pretty much everywhere all the time, even if you scrupulously avoid passing a Cinnabon. This is particularly true if you are a sportswriter, which may be the world's fattest profession.
I cover the Mariners regularly, and when I walked into the media dining room at Safeco Field, I was overwhelmed by all the gluten foods I usually stuff into my mouth. Pasta. Sandwiches. Rolls. Hot dog buns (and maybe the hot dogs). Crackers. And, most especially, cookies and cakes.
Fortunately, gluten-free lettuce wraps were available. And Safeco has so many concessions available that there is a gluten-free stand offering the Niehaus sandwich. Legendary Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus had a famous line when calling a grand slam -- "Get out the rye bread and salami, Grandma, it's Grand Salami time!" The Niehaus sandwich offers pastrami on a gluten-free roll. It was good, but also very expensive -- $9.50 for a sandwich even smaller than an American man's chances of winning the French Open.
Gluten-free alternatives aren't cheap. And they aren't always tasty, either.
For instance, gluten-free bread isn't terrible but it can be a little cardboard-ish, and the type I had does not toast or microwave well. It tends to get very soggy and fall apart, sort of like Sloane Stephens after the 2013 Australian Open
And then there is gluten-free pasta.
Normally when my wife and I cook pasta, I can't stop myself from just grabbing the noodles and eating them by the handful without any sauce. The first gluten-free pasta I tried was terrible, though, tasting even worse than a meal you get in coach on an airplane. I tried a different brand the next time and while it was definitely better, it still was not as good as regular pasta.
On the other hand, I wasn't grabbing it by the handful, so I was cutting down on the calories.
That's the thing. I believe the biggest difference-maker in Djoker's diet is that by cutting out gluten, you eliminate many calories. So many things I would normally grab to snack on -- a roll, a cookie, malted milk balls -- I could not eat. Instead, I would eat an apple or some berries or pistachios. That was much healthier.
Meals weren't as filling, so I often remained hungry, but that wasn't bad. Like Tour de France cyclists who embrace the pain of riding 100-plus miles per day for three weeks, you need to embrace hunger. Rather than always quenching your hunger, try to stay hungry, knowing that you are trimming weight, which most Americans not on the WTA or ATP need to do.
Aside from the poor in starving countries, being slightly hungry is much better than being stuffed. And it really doesn't feel any worse, either.
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.
-- Djokovic in "Serve to Win"
I am an enthusiastic cyclist (my wife would say obsessive), riding 5,000-7,000 miles a year. I rode my usual routines during the Djoker diet but did not feel fitter or stronger or faster. The only difference is I felt hungrier than normal. But though hungry, I never bonked, which was a good sign.
When the two weeks ended, I stood on the scale after lunch. I looked down and saw my weight was 160. I had dropped five pounds in 14 days.
"Good. That's enough," Djokovic said when I told him I had eaten healthier and lost weight on his diet. "I encourage you to keep on going."
Part of me wanted to continue. While I wanted to eat gluten again, I didn't want to give in to the calories. Perhaps if I stayed on the diet, I could become as trim and fit as Djokovic.
No surprise here, it didn't take long for me to relent -- I was not going to go gluten free forever. So I celebrated by eating an almond croissant. It was filled with almond paste and sugar and gluten and calories, and it was absolutely delicious.
Unlike Djokovic, I did not feel hungover the next day when I woke up. I did not feel stiff. I was not at all sluggish. I felt the same as I did before and during the diet. Which is to say, I felt fine.
But I did develop a slight cold. And I also desperately wanted another croissant. Or two. Or three. Or four. Or ...
I will not stay gluten free. But I will go gluten limited to help keep the calories down and stay trimmer.
And I made sure to ask Djokovic if he knew where I can get gluten-free crepes in Paris