Gluten is a buzzword in the dance world—and the world at large. Lots of dancers are going gluten-free, hoping it will help them stay fit and gain energy. But not all gluten-free diets are the same, and some processed gluten-free products aren’t any healthier for you than their normal counterparts. DS chatted with two nutritionists to get the scoop on this growing trend.
(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein naturally found in different grains, like wheat, barley and rye. Although it’s been getting a bad rap lately, gluten does have some good qualities. “It helps bread rise and stay moist, fresh and chewy,” says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. Gluten is also rich in protein—about 23 grams of protein per quarter cup. “That’s more than a palm-size piece of meat, fish or poultry,” Bauer says.
But in recent years, there’s been a rise in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten. “Gluten is not the same as it was 5 or 10 years ago,” says Colleen McCarthy, a registered dietitian and owner of OnPointeNutrition.com. “Now there’s more gluten in processed food than ever before.” Modern agricultural practices blend varieties of wheat to create a hybrid that grows faster, produces a higher yield and bakes fluffier bread—but hybrid grains also have a higher gluten content. “We’re seeing a rise in health problems because our digestive systems can’t handle that much,” says McCarthy.
Why Dancers (Without Celiac Disease) Are Going Gluten-Free
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, there might still be advantages to cutting gluten from your diet. Boston Ballet corps member Caralin Curcio, who has been gluten-free for four years, says she’s experienced a lot less inflammation since making the change. “During Nutcracker, I remember noticing that my feet still fit in my pointe shoes after the third show of the day!” she says.
Alice Klock, a dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, went gluten-free six years ago (when her sister was diagnosed with celiac disease) and felt a difference immediately. “Before, I was always starving on busy dance days, no matter how much I ate,” she says. “When I cut out gluten and started eating more gluten-free grains—like quinoa, spelt and chia—I noticed I could dance longer.”
If you eliminate grains from your diet entirely, you may risk developing deficiencies in vitamin B-12, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 and iron. Found in whole grains, B vitamins help your body convert food into fuel. “They’re a must for dancers,” McCarthy says. “If you’re not eating enough whole grains, you’re going to feel more tired. Gluten-free dancers should add in other whole grains, like faro and quinoa, and carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, beans, peas and lentils, to make sure they’re getting enough B vitamins.
Some people who go gluten-free also eat too many processed foods, simply because they’re labeled gluten-free. “You can end up consuming more sugar,” McCarthy says, “because the manufacturers have to replace the gluten with something else to make the food taste good.” She recommends flipping over boxes and bags to see what’s in them. “If there are more than five ingredients, put it back,” she says. Klock avoids packaged foods by bringing a rice cooker with her on tour so she can cook up batches of quinoa in her hotel room.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Jessika Anspach in George Balanchine’s Divertimento (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
Living with Celiac
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Jessika Anspach remembers being bloated and constipated after she ate anything with gluten. “I had this belly I couldn’t suck in!” she recalls. She felt tired, achy and puffy—almost like she had the flu. Then last year, Anspach got sick with a low-grade fever and missed two weeks of rehearsals. Her doctor ran some blood work and discovered that she carries two copies of a gene that predisposes her to celiac. “He said I had to be off gluten completely,” she says. “It’s not a disease you want to mess around with.” Left untreated, celiac disease can contribute to certain cancers, osteoporosis or infertility.
Today, Anspach follows a strict gluten-free diet and strives to be in the best condition possible. “I’m eating right for my body so that I don’t develop celiac disease. It’s not a choice for me.”
Jessika’s Favorite Gluten-Free Meals
: shake with pumpkin seed protein powder and hemp milk, scrambled eggs, coffee with hemp milk
: veggies, like bell pepper, celery, cherry tomatoes and carrots, roasted
turkey breast, dried seaweed
: mixed nuts, fruit, like an apple, an orange or a handful of raspberries
: fish, pork tenderloin, hamburger patty or slow-cooker carnitas, salad or fresh veggies, rice, sweet potato fries or roasted fingerling potatoes
: coconut milk ice cream