Dancer Health

Should You Eat Like a Caveman?

The paleo diet is high in protein and produce, but dancers also need carbs from grains and legumes for energy. Thinkstock

Fueling your body for dance is essential, but deciding what to eat isn't always easy. And with new diets surfacing every month, it can be hard to know what to believe: low-carb, low-fat, no gluten, no dairy? What's the best approach?

We delved into two hot diet trends—paleolithic and gluten-free—and consulted experts to find out how they really stack up for dancers. There's something to take away from both of these diets. Learn the facts to create a meal plan of whole, nutrient-rich foods that will never go out of style.


The Paleo Diet

What it is: The paleolithic diet is the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet du jour. It aims to mimic the nutritional habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived before the advent of agriculture. Advocates for paleo point to data indicating hunter-gatherers were larger and more physically fit than their farming descendants. The diet eliminates processed foods as well as grains (the diet is largely gluten-free), legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, salt and refined vegetable oils. Instead, practitioners eat grass-fed meats, fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and oils.

The good stuff: The paleo diet promotes eating whole, unprocessed foods. This cuts out snacks like cookies, cereal, chips and granola bars, which contain added sugars, salts and often chemical flavoring and colors. Because paleo eating is so restrictive, most unhealthy temptations are eliminated. “The junk is gone," says Roberta Anding, a sports nutritionist who has worked with Houston Ballet. Paleo replaces many of our quick snacks and indulgences with fresh fruits and vegetables.

The problems: For dancers, the dramatic reduction in carbohydrates is a concern. “Carbohydrate is the fuel of exercising muscle," says Anding. Without grains, legumes or potatoes, the paleo diet relies on fruits and vegetables to fill the carbohydrate gap—a difficult task.

And don't think a protein-heavy plate can make up for the carb deficit. The body metabolizes and uses protein to build new muscle and produce hormones and enzymes, whereas carbohydrates are metabolized into energy much more readily, says Emily Harrison, a registered dietitian with Atlanta Ballet. “The body considers amino acids from protein to be special things," she says. “Especially when you are young and growing, your body doesn't want to burn protein." If dancers don't get enough carbohydrates, they can feel fatigued during class.

Harrison also explains that many people on the paleo diet consume more protein than they need: as many as 100 to 200 grams daily, when the requirement is far less (though it varies per person). High-protein diets can also increase risk of dehydration.

The takeaway: Cut out empty calories and processed foods for a more wholesome menu, but don't let your protein-to-carbohydrate ratio swing too much in the protein direction. You need those nutrients for fuel.

Gluten-Free

What it is: It has its own menus at restaurants and a separate aisle in the grocery store. Going gluten-free has never been more popular. Gluten is the name for the proteins found in wheat and other grains like barley and rye. It is what gives bread its doughy texture. Eliminating gluten seems straightforward at first: no bread, pasta, cereal, etc. But gluten is used as a binding agent in lots of foods and may be found in unexpected places like your salad dressing or veggie burger.

The good stuff: For people with the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, going gluten-free can be lifesaving. Harrison says that 1 to 2 percent of the population is affected by celiac disease, which causes intestinal damage and can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Other people experience slightly less serious non-celiac gluten intolerance. They don't suffer intestinal damage, but they may have foggy thinking, fatigue, joint pain or dermatitis when they consume gluten. Finally, Harrison says there is also wheat intolerance, whose sufferers are still able to eat barley and rye.

If you often feel sick after meals and suspect you fit into one of these categories, Anding suggests eliminating gluten for a week or two and seeing how you feel. If you don't feel rapid improvement, it's likely something else is causing your symptoms. In either case, you should make an appointment with a doctor to investigate the cause.

As for the rest of the population, varying your carbohydrates is more important than eliminating anything. “We do live in a wheat-heavy society," says Heidi Skolnik, a certified dietitian who consults with the School of American Ballet. “It's great to diversify where we get our carbohydrates." There's nothing wrong with eating whole grains, but it's great to add sweet potatoes and quinoa, too, because each food offers different nutrients.

The problems: “It's not a healthier way of eating unless you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease," says Anding. Yes, restricting gluten may lead to weight loss if, for example, you've been eating a muffin every morning. But that's because you've cut back your 500-calorie breakfast, not because you've eliminated gluten. Furthermore, Anding says eating gluten-free can risk introducing processed food back into your diet. “Everything you buy that's gluten-free—tortillas, cookies, cereal, doughnuts—is all highly processed to get the gluten out," she says. Eating naturally gluten-free whole grains like brown rice and corn is a better approach, but those options are not inherently healthier than gluten-based grains like wheat and barley.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the gluten-free fad is the repercussions it can have for people who have a medical need to eliminate it. “It makes it harder for people with celiac to be taken seriously," says Harrison. “When you ask the waiter at a restaurant if something has gluten, you know he's thinking you're one of those crazy people who is just on a diet."

The takeaway: If you have celiac disease, gluten-free eating is a must. If you don't, eat a diverse diet of whole, natural, unprocessed food, and don't bother buying packaged gluten-free products. There is nothing inherently healthy about them, and most are highly processed.

Show Comments ()
Photo courtesy of NYCDA

Competition and convention season can seem never-ending, but with access to the world's most popular teachers, the experience is invaluable and gives students the opportunity to learn from the best in the business.

Seth Robinson, who teaches contemporary and improv with STREETZ and REVEL dance conventions, has taught and judged thousands of dancers across the nation. Here, Robinson offers three tips to better prepare your students for dance's ever-popular, jam-packed events.

Keep reading... Show less

Alexandra Costumes' bold apparel has been making its way onto stages across the nation and people are noticing. Why do coaches love these costumes so much? With years of experience in the dance industry, the minds behind Alexandra Costumes know what works for dancers—comfort, performance and stage-worthy style.

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock
I'm a senior at a Performing Arts high school. I have been taking ballet for 2 years and started taking tumbling classes with a local gymnastics instructor. One of my jazz teachers advised me to stop as she said it would create bad habits. I enjoy the classes and think my dancing has improved. Thoughts?
Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Josephine Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos

Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, Gene Tapia was a victim of bullying. "I had a stutter as a kid," he says. "I was chased after school and almost beaten up all the time." Shedding light on this sensitive subject was the inspiration behind Tapia's video What About Us.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by TC, courtesy of Guillette

Healing through movement has proven to be a powerful salve for pain, trauma and even disease. In an effort to explore her own grief, dancer and writer Suzanne Guillette created a piece titled Moving, for You: A Tribute to Empathy. The project, which initially honored a collection of other people's written personal stories of grief and loss, evolved into a short film of Guillette's improvisational movement. As one story contributor Lindsay McKinnon described it, "Suzie is 'singing over bones' and allowing those painful places to live and breathe, dance and be free."

Here is Guillette's journey that discovers and celebrates empathy and joy through dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Via Jaime Guttenberg's memorialized Facebook page

Last week the dance community was heartbroken to learn that Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old dancer, was among the 17 people killed on Valentine's Day in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Jaime trained at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL and was a member of the studio's DTX competition team. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick said this on Facebook:

You can join dancers across the nation in showing support for Jaime's family, her friends, and her dance community by wearing orange ribbons at competitions, in class, or at rehearsal this weekend. Our hearts go out to everyone who loves Jaime, and to everyone touched by the shooting in Parkland.

This article was orignally published on dancespirit.com.

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored