For as long as there have been dancers, there have been diets. But dancers should be spending their time dancing, not manipulating their diet and restricting calories. “If they greatly reduce their caloric intake and reduce grains and bread, their energy is going to drop, and they’re going to go into a brain fog,” says The Ailey School’s nutritionist Marie Scioscia, referring to a feeling of disorientation caused by undernourishment.
Nevertheless, your students are bound to encounter—and consider trying—popular diets. The constant stream of conflicting information about ever-changing diet trends can be especially misleading for young dancers who are eager to get ahead in a field that demands athletics and rewards aesthetics. To help you sort through some of the noise, DT looked at three trendy diets of 2017—some with more science than others—and checked in with registered dietitians about how they stack up for dancers.
1. The DASH Diet
The promise DASH is an acronym: dietary approaches to stop hypertension. Developed by the National Institutes of Health, it suggests eating lots of fruits and vegetables, plus whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein, while cutting back on salt and fat to lower blood pressure. An overweight person may shed a few pounds on the diet, too.
The lowdown It wasn’t designed for healthy people, but its menu earns high marks for including lots of whole, nutrient-rich foods. Its requirements could be unnecessarily restrictive, though.
Not known for glamorous celeb endorsements or trending hashtags on Instagram, DASH has nonetheless quietly topped U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Diets” list seven years in a row. “DASH is considered a very reputable diet in my field,” says Atlanta dietitian Emily Harrison, who works primarily with dancers in her private practice. Its emphasis on produce and whole grains is something any nutrition expert can get behind.
It earns its top spot as a diet for treating high blood pressure, however, and that’s not a concern for most dancers. The restrictive nature of the diet—counting servings of each food group, for example—targets people who eat the typical American diet of the 1950s, heavy on red meat and dairy, low on fruits and vegetables, Harrison says (adding that today’s standard American diet is even worse). The diet also emphasizes cutting salt, which Harrison doesn’t recommend for a dancer, unless she’s eating a big bag of Doritos every day. In fact, when dancers sweat a lot or are exercising for hours, she sometimes recommends a rehydration drink to restore sodium and other electrolytes.
The Ailey School’s nutritionist Marie Scioscia likes that DASH doesn’t eliminate any major food groups and encourages consuming low-fat dairy, since calcium is essential to bone health. “I’d tell dancers just to add more food,” she says, noting that the 2,000 to 2,200 calories recommended for moderately active people may be a little low.
The promise It’s a cleanse that promises to “push the reset button” on your body by eliminating sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy and legumes for 30 days. Then you slowly reintroduce foods to see if you have sensitivities to any of them. It is said to cure everything from digestive issues to skin conditions, along with reducing cravings and repairing unhealthy eating habits, and guarantees it will “change your life.”
The lowdown Run away! This fad diet is on the other end of the credibility spectrum, in last place on the U.S. News list. It elicits groans from dietitians not just for being ineffective, but for potentially encouraging eating disorders.
“Whole30 is the bane of my existence,” says Leslie Bonci, a sports dietitian who works with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “The whole idea is founded on nonsense and is a recipe to lead someone into disordered eating behavior.” First, you can’t “reset your body.” “It doesn’t work that way,” Bonci says. Plus, the diet leaves no room for error. Harrison says phrases on the company’s website, like “This is not hard” and “Don’t even consider the possibility of a ‘slip,'” are triggers to a population of people already prone to disordered eating. “It’s creating food fears, when we have enough issues as it is,” Harrison says, adding that dancers should be able to enjoy cake on their birthday, for example, without feeling guilty or like they “slipped.”
She also points out that legumes like chickpeas, soybeans and lentils are great and inexpensive sources of nutritious, inexpensive protein for dancers. She’s wary of any diet that suggests removing them.
3. Acid-Alkaline Diet
The promise Balance your body’s pH through diet for better health and a longer life. The theory is that when you eat acidic foods like red meat or even fish, it forces the body to expend excess energy restoring pH to a healthy range. For weight loss, slower aging and better overall health, the diet suggests you can keep your pH balanced by pairing acidic foods (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, grains) with alkaline, or basic, foods (fruits, nuts, legumes, veggies). Creators of the diet offer food charts that map out “good” and “bad” combinations.
The lowdown The acid-alkaline diet is tempting because it sounds like chemistry, but it’s mostly bogus.
All three dietitians DT spoke with said that if our bodies couldn’t correct pH imbalances, we’d be dead: “Short of consuming hydrochloric acid or lye, which would kill us, there’s no way to change the acid-alkaline content of our bodies,” Bonci says. “Our bodies control our pH beautifully,” Scioscia says. “We can push ourselves via diet into a little bit of an acid place, but, generally speaking, because our life depends on our pH being regulated between 7.35 and 7.45, if we were only to regulate our acid-base levels by foods, we would be dead.” She also thinks the diet is “very imbalanced” and warns that reducing fruits and greatly limiting carbohydrates from grains can cause the body to break down protein instead of carbs for energy, the byproduct of which is actually quite acidic.
Beyond the known benefits of eating whole, unprocessed foods, the diet has little research to support it, and its food-pairing parameters are overly strict and difficult to follow. “A body is not going to become too acidic or too alkaline,” Harrison says. “A healthy body will fix it itself.”