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.

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