As the world’s No. 1 tennis player embarks on a quest to win his second US Open singles title next week, we now know what he’ll be eating to meet the challenge. In Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence, Novak Djokovic just revealed how he pulled himself out of a career slump by eliminating gluten and dairy from his diet. In addition to recipes, meal plans and tips, the Serbian star also writes about growing up in Belgrade, where he practiced tennis between bombings and dreamed of winning Wimbledon. Here, in an excerpt from the book, he explains one of his five rules of eating for mental and physical performance: Eat slowly and consciously. —BBL Editor
We live in a fast-food culture, and fast food means fast eating. Is it a race? Will someone give me money if I finish first? A few years ago, as part of my quest to understand food, I went to a restaurant in London called Dans le Noir. There are now several of these restaurants around the world, and they are unlike any others—not for the food, but for the atmosphere. Because Dans le Noir is partially staffed by people who are totally blind, and when you eat, you eat in complete darkness. I don’t mean that they turn out the lights and you dine by candlelight. I mean black curtains, leave your cell phone at the door, complete and total darkness. A waiter meets you in the anteroom, tells you the selections, and writes down your order. Then he takes you by the hand and guides you in to immersive darkness, leading you, blind and helpless, to your table. You eat without ever catching a glimpse of your food.
And the food tastes extraordinary. Your senses of taste and smell are heightened, and flavors explode in ways you never thought possible. You eat slowly, naturally, exploring the meal with your nose and taste buds. The experience solidified in my mind just how important it is to slow down and resist today’s fast-food mentality.
And that leads me to rule number one: Eat slowly and consciously.
As an athlete, I have a fast metabolism. My body requires a lot of energy, especially when I’m in a match. For that reason, I want to digest food as efficiently as possible so I conserve as much energy as possible. You must remember science class: Digestion requires blood. I need that blood when I’m performing. If I can help my digestive system work better and faster, I’ll be able to get back to physical activity sooner, with more power in that physical activity. (By the way, this is why I drink primarily room-temperature water, never ice water. Ice draws blood to the digestive system to heat it up to body temperature. That slows the digestive process.)
If I eat quickly? I get the same result that you’d get if you shoveled it in. My stomach doesn’t have time to process the information it’s getting because it comes in the form of a big data dump of food. If the stomach doesn’t get the right information in the right time, digestion slows down. Your body won’t signal to you that you’re full. You might overeat. You also don’t give your mouth the time it needs to do its thing— namely, allow the enzymes in your saliva to break down the food in your mouth so your stomach doesn’t have to. Again, science class: Digestion begins in the mouth. As you chew, the food breaks down, and your stomach has time to prepare for the food.
If I eat quickly, I’ll have big chunks of half-chewed food in my belly and my body will have to work harder and use more energy to break it down. Simply put, I won’t give my body the clear signals it needs to become one with the food.
That may sound strange, but I’ll say it again: Your body needs to become one with the food. That is exactly what the process of digestion is.
When I sit down to eat, I start by saying a short prayer. I don’t speak to a specific God, or follow the tenets of a specific religion when I pray, and I don’t pray out loud—it is simply a conversation that happens inside of me. When I do this, I remind myself that there are hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of people in the world today who are worried about food. Living through a war probably helped me understand that in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise, but I never take food for granted. I remind myself that I must always see it as a blessing.
When I sit down to eat, I don’t watch TV. I don’t check emails, send texts, talk on the phone, or engage in heavy conversations. When I take a bite, I often put my fork down on the plate, and concentrate on chewing. As I chew, the process of digestion is already starting. The enzymes in my saliva mix with the food, so that when it hits my stomach it is a fully formed piece of “information.” It is the same as if you gave someone directions to your house; the more details you give, the more easily the person can get there, and the less time she needs to spend figuring it out. I want my body not to have to figure anything out, because I know how much it means to my stomach and to my energy level for the next part of the day.