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.

The Conversation
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Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
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