As the new year begins, and people are looking to 2021 as a reset in many facets of their lives, there is a common thread that many Americans grasp onto: revamping their diet in order to secure a healthier lifestyle in the new year. Often, in a bid for quick results, people turn to fad diets like the Whole30, Keto Diet, Paleo Diet, 75 Hard (a recent viral TikTok sensation), and Intermittent Fasting. Some of these diets recommend the elimination of entire macronutrient groups, while others are more focused on encouraging the follower to maintain a specific regimen that is potentially unsustainable and possibly harmful in the long run. Dancers, due to many reasons, can be particularly susceptible to the specious claims these fad diets make, and can fall into habits that end up being detrimental to their dancing bodies and minds. In order to take a closer look at what harm these fad diets can cause, and what proper nutrition for a dancer really looks like, I spoke with Rachel Fine, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, of To The Pointe Nutrition, to sort out nutrition facts from nutrition fiction.
The diets that we see touted by celebrities and influencers are often not created with the average person’s body, let alone the specific needs of a dancer’s lifestyle, in mind. The Whole30 Diet, a spin off of the Paleo Diet, claims to eliminate inflammation in the follower’s body through the removal of sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, MSG, sulfites, baked goods, and junk food for thirty days, and then slowly reintroducing the foods back to the body to see which of the eliminated foods cause “inflammation.” This diet has been widely panned by nutritionists as too extreme and lacking in research and scientific backing. For example, the diet eliminates grains and legumes, which are proven to be helpful for weight loss and a general healthy diet. Furthermore, it falsely draws parallels between an elimination diet, a valid diet for those suffering with allergies and food sensitivities to discover what ails them, and a weight-loss diet.
Every dancer’s body is different, and attempting to adhere to a standard diet or schedule that appears to work for an influencer on Instagram is a perilous road.
The Ketogenic Diet, or Keto, as it is more commonly called, is similar to the Atkins Diet craze from the early 2000s. It instructs the follower to eat a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet in order to place the body into ketosis. This claims to move the body from burning glucose as an energy source to burning the ketones and fatty acids stored in the liver. However, this diet was initially designed to treat epilepsy, not as a daily practice for the average person, and the removal and vilification of carbohydrates could be incredibly detrimental to high-energy burning athletes like dancers.
Paleo dieters are expected to remove “farmed foods” that would not have been available to our prehistoric ancestors, arguing that agricultural technology evolved much faster than the human body, and humans are better off eating what man was initially consuming in the Stone Age. This means no grains, sugars, legumes, potatoes, or dairy; limiting salt intake, and focusing instead on organic fruits, vegetables, and meats. This is an incredibly imbalanced diet that can lead to higher saturated fat intake and increased cholesterol, due to the increased intake of meat. Additionally, there is no way to know for certain what ancient man actually consumed, and the chemical composition of prehistoric fruits, vegetables, and meats are most definitely different to those we encounter in our grocery store aisles today. The science is shaky, at best.
The 75 Hard and Intermittent Fasting programs are less of a diet plan, and more like lifestyle regimens. The 75 Hard, started by entrepreneur Andy Frisella, bills itself as a “Transformative Mental Toughness Program” that calls for followers to adhere to the following daily schedule for seventy-five days: two fourty-five minute workouts per day (one must be outdoors, the why is unclear), a diet (again, no specifics on what the diet is, just that you must be on one), no alcohol or cheat meals, drink one gallon of water per day, read ten pages of non-fiction (audiobooks apparently do not count), and take a progress picture. For a dancer, this is quite a lot on top of what they are already attempting to execute in a day of classes, rehearsals, and other responsibilities that come with being alive. While some of the rules are harmless, there is simply no scientific evidence or backing, and the creator is not anyone in the field of diet, health, or nutrition. The sudden increased physical exertion as well as the intensity of the “no days off” mentality can lead to injury and burnout in an already busy and exhausted dancer.
Intermittent Fasting, like the 75 Hard, does not mandate the elimination of certain foods, but it does regulate when the follower should eat. Different programs call for different eating schedules, but the most common is the 16/8, which restricts eating into the hours between noon and eight PM. While there are legitimate, scientifically noted benefits to fasting, the act of narrowing one’s eating timetable can trigger many dancers who are already overzealous when it comes to restrictive eating. Additionally, a dancer’s busy schedule may not be conducive to only eating between certain hours of the day, and the pressure to “stay on schedule” may be mentally too much.
Many of the fad diets promise speedy results like greater mental clarity, sharper muscle tone, weight loss, and a “better quality of life,” often by removing and vilifying an entire food group, much like the low-fat craze of the eighties and nineties. Other diets promise results by restricting calories, or by restricting the kinds of foods you can consume. The problem with this from a psychological aspect, according to Fine, is the intense limitations placed on the follower. “As humans, we don’t do well with restriction. We don’t do well when we’re told we can’t have something. It kind of just breeds desire. So these diets are rather unsustainable.” For dancers specifically, the problem is more insidious. By restricting caloric intake, dancers are cutting down on their source of energy, and by eliminating food groups; dancers are removing vital nutrients from their daily consumption. The consequences are vast, ranging from a general lack of mental clarity to an increased risk of injury. Many of these diets were initially created for people who are already experiencing health issues, not with busy, healthy dancers in mind. No two people are alike, and it is not scientifically sound to compare the results and effects of a diet on an unhealthy person versus a healthy person.
Additionally, the results that many dancers are searching for in these fad diets will dissipate in the long term. Fine acknowledges that while weight loss in the short run is certainly a possibility, it is not a permanent fixture of the diet, and many times, a rebound weight gain is the final conclusion. However, it is injury, not weight gain that is the most troubling long-term ramification. “Injury is the overarching result from any type of restrictive diet that we see,” notes Fine. And though we tend to think of injuries as physical, they can also manifest mentally. Simply by being chronically under-fueled and lacking proper nutrition, a dancer can be more easily fatigued, leading to a greater risk of physical injury. Furthermore, the mental strain of following a strict regimen can be incredibly isolating; leading to burnout, and difficulty socializing due to a fear of unknown foods not prepared inside the home. Restrictive dieting can cause increased anxiety surrounding food that can lead down a dark and difficult road of disordered eating.
Unfortunately, though the harm can be easily understood, these fad diets are not going anywhere. They are constantly rebranding themselves, with new ones gaining popularity as old ones are debunked or fade away. The rise of the visual medium of social media paired with the dance industry’s continued intense scrutiny on the physical appearance of dancers makes these unhealthy lifestyle choices appear appealing to the individual dancer from time to time. According to Fine, the glorification of weight loss and the allure of achieving an “ideal” dancer’s body in a speedy timeline is what it really boils down to. “This is still very much at the forefront of our industry, because it's such an aesthetically based art…it ends up being about the dancer’s body weight and wanting to achieve some glamorized body type, and to do so in the quickest way possible.”
“Injury is the overarching result from any type of restrictive diet that we see,” notes Fine.
So what can be done, and how can dancers achieve their aesthetic and artistic goals while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and committing to proper nutrition? There is no quick answer or panacea. For Fine, it is all about balance—it is not wise to eliminate an entire macronutrient. “You need a source of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, pretty much at every meal or snack throughout the day. Each of these macronutrients holds important responsibilities when it comes to our health, ability to perform, and even our appetite,” she states. Fine also emphasizes the importance of eating regularly throughout the day to keep the dancer’s energy levels steady and stave off major cravings and extreme hunger later into the night. If a dancer already has a damaged relationship with food and eating, Fine recommends seeking out resources and asking for help. She has lots of resources, and many of them are free at her own resource site, dancenutrition.com. Healing a relationship with food is not something that can be achieved alone in silence. As Fine states, “Turn to a licensed professional; a dietitian like myself, or even a mental health professional…the road to fixing your relationship with food and your body does require support. So if you are in a dance environment that is not supportive of that, that can cause more harm, no matter what professional you are speaking with.”
In the end, proper nutrition begins with reframing how dancers think about food. “Start thinking of food as a friend and not a fear. Dancers get very focused on just the physical consequences of eating, like what it will do for their performance. While that is very important, I think we also have to think about food for mental health, like enjoying food as a celebration!” exclaims Fine. There is no magic diet or miracle solution that will solve all body woes in one fell swoop, and dancers should be incredibly wary of anyone or any process claiming such fast results for everyone. Fine also notes that dancers should pay attention to who they are listening to on social media. She recommends following licensed professionals, and curating a feed of evidence-based facts rather than flashy influencers with fishy claims. Proper nutrition should be sustainable, enjoyable, and lifelong. Every dancer’s body is different, and attempting to adhere to a standard diet or schedule that appears to work for an influencer on Instagram is a perilous road. These fad diet options are a threat to a dancer’s career, health, and happiness, and the short term burst of potential weight loss is simply not worth the long term consequences.
Rachel Fine is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition, and a Certified Counselor of Intuitive Eating. She is also the founder of The Healthy Dancer™, a program for weight management for dancers and fitness enthusiasts, as well as the founder of To The Pointe Nutrition. She aims to provide nutrition education to dancers of all ages and levels by pairing her deep knowledge of Performance Nutrition with a non-diet approach to eating. You can connect with her at her website (pointenutrition.com), her resources site (dancenutrition.com), or on Instagram @tothepointenutrition