The Paleo, or “caveman,” diet is a growing trend in the dance world and beyond. Many dancers are turning to this low-carb, high-protein way of eating in an effort to feel healthy. Some swear it gives them more energy with less bulk, making it less uncomfortable to dance right after eating.
Despite the hype, Paleo isn’t right for everybody—because while it’s true a diet of lean meats and tons of fruits and vegetables is good for you, it’s what you can’t eat on it that has nutrition professionals concerned.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
“Paleo” is short for the Paleolithic era—a period ending about 10,000 years ago, before the rise of agriculture, when cave people hunted for meat and foraged for nuts, berries and seeds. The Paleo diet suggests that we should only eat what our ancestors ate, and that means no processed foods, refined sugar, vegetable oils, salt, grains, potatoes, legumes (beans and peanuts) or dairy.
Paleo-approved foods include the meat of grass-fed animals, seafood, fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and more healthful oils, like olive or coconut. (Surprisingly, some say dark chocolate in moderation is OK, too, because it’s primarily cacao with minimal sugar.) And with no calorie counting or portion control, Paleo doesn’t place limits on how much you can eat.
What does this look like? Pennsylvania Ballet principal and Paleo devotee Lauren Fadeley fuels her dancing day with a lot of nuts, dried fruits, veggies and lean meat. “I’ll have a spoonful of almond butter when I’m running out the door in the morning,” she says. Energy bars made from nuts and dried dates and spaghetti squash with meat sauce are also two of Fadeley’s standbys.
The premise of the Paleo diet is that our bodies aren’t made to digest agriculturally based or processed foods. Advocates claim that it helps people lose weight while boosting energy levels and overall health. Fadeley thinks she has better muscle tone; Broadway dancer Katelyn Prominski, who also subscribes to the Paleo lifestyle, says it keeps her feeling light before a show. “I’m eating a lot of food, but it doesn’t drag me down,” she says. In addition, the Paleo diet helps her manage her type-1 diabetes, since the regimen is low on carbohydrates.
What the Experts Say
“As with every diet, there are pros and cons,” says Peggy Swistak, a registered dietitian who works with dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “The Paleo diet is high in fiber and eliminates junk food, since you can’t eat anything processed. But it’s very low in calcium and carbohydrates, which dancers need.” Swistak estimates that the Paleo diet only offers about 700 milligrams of calcium per day, and young dancers need at least 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams daily. “You can always take supplements, but that’s not as healthy,” she says.
Emily Cook Harrison, a registered dietitian at the Centre for Dance Nutrition in Atlanta, agrees. “Carbs are the best source of energy for any athletic activity, especially dancing,” she says. “If you’re just burning protein, it’s like putting the wrong kind of gas in your sports car. It’ll go, but it’s not the best fuel.” Excess protein, Harrison says, can also lead to bone loss and increase a dancer’s risk of getting injured. “You’re not allowed any dairy or even soy milk on this diet,” she says. “It’s a recipe for a stress fracture.”
Eating Paleo might help you lose weight, but it’s mostly fluid—and not fat—that you’re dropping. “You need a certain amount of water in your body to metabolize carbohydrates,” says Swistak. “If you cut carbs, you’re cutting fluid, so it just looks like you lost weight.”
A Moderation Mantra
That said, if you allow yourself some flexibility when it comes to carbs and dairy, trying out Paleo for a while could help you form better eating habits. “No one argues that getting rid of junk food is a bad thing, and the Paleo diet was originally meant to be just a three-week plan,” Swistak says. “If you can avoid sugar and refined starches for a few weeks, maybe you won’t want to eat them as much when you go off the diet.”
Fadeley has been eating Paleo for four years—on and off. “If I’m craving something, I let myself have it,” she says. She takes vitamin supplements, eats dairy products on occasion and indulges on weekends. And she admits to going off the diet during summer breaks. “Some people are really strict about it, but I just do the things that make me feel the best.”