In the quest to become a calorie-burning machine, the promises made by popular diets may be tempting. But do these diets work? Are they safe? In the end, will they enhance or harm your performance? Any diet that severely restricts calories can impair performance and health. As a growing dancer, it’s especially important to be educated about how your body works and how it gets energy from food. DS uncovers the myths and truths about four popular diets.
The Atkins Diet
Though Atkins has been around for a while, it’s still a popular choice and has inspired many spin-off fad diets such as The South Beach Diet. The basic principle is fewer carbs, more protein. In theory, restricting carbs turns on the body’s fat-burning mechanism, putting the body into what Dr. Atkins called “benign dietary ketosis.” In simpler terms, according to Dr. Atkins, when a person eats carbohydrates found in foods such as bread, pasta and fruit, the body burns those carbs for fuel. When carbs are restricted, the body must burn fat for fuel instead.
How It Works: Proteins and fats are eaten without restriction in each of the diet’s four phases, while carbs are limited to varying degrees. Once initial weight loss begins, carb intake can increase from about 20 grams per day in the first phase (3 cups of salad) to 35-40 grams per day (one bowl of cereal, or one baked potato).
The Truth: There is nothing magic about eliminating carbohydrates. On this diet, you’ll likely lose weight because you’ll be eating fewer calories. The Atkins diet is particularly dangerous for dancers (and all athletes). Glucose—the only chemical form of fuel that the brain and nervous system can use—is most easily provided by carb-rich foods like whole grains, cereal, pasta, potatoes, fruit and vegetables. When you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, the body will use ketone bodies (partially broken down fat molecules) from fat and protein to make glucose. This is not natural. The blood will become very acidic, and the body will respond by trying to buffer the blood with calcium taken from bones and teeth. This means that bones and teeth may become brittle. In addition, your body will lose much-needed water as it tries to flush out excess protein waste, making it more difficult to stay hydrated on long dancing days.
Another side effect of a low-carb diet is that the protein you do eat can’t be used for muscle repair, because it has to be used for glucose production. The result? Building muscle becomes very difficult and, in many cases, muscle will actually be torn down for glucose production. Energy levels drop, and headaches and muscle aches are common.
The Blood Type Diet
According to Peter J. D’Adamo, blood type determines a person’s susceptibility to disease, which foods can be tolerated, and which cause allergic reactions. When people eat the right foods for their blood type, weight just falls off—in theory.
How It Works: Sixteen food groups are divided into three categories: highly beneficial foods, neutral foods and foods to avoid. The “avoidance” foods are supposed to “poison” the dieter’s blood. For example, this diet posits that type ABs should avoid nearly every meat source including chicken, pork, veal, ground beef and buffalo.
The Truth: There are no peer-reviewed published studies that support any of the claims made by this diet. People have legitimate allergies to certain foods regardless of their blood type, but these should be determined by a licensed allergist. If you have extreme fatigue, digestive problems such as excess gas and bloating, diarrhea or constipation, see your doctor for a physical and blood work-up to determine the causes. Follow up your doctor’s visit by seeing a nutritionist who can determine which foods you should consume and in what amounts.
The Cabbage Soup Diet
Anyone considering this diet is strongly encouraged to see a physician first, because it is so restrictive and dangerously low in calories.
How It Works: Two servings a day of homemade cabbage soup and other specific foods are eaten for seven days. The cabbage soup recipe makes 24 cups. Each cup has 60 calories. If you follow the plan, you may consume anywhere from 860 to 1,030 calories. This is far fewer than what dancers need for bare existence, much less to make it through a day of school and dance classes.
The Truth: Most female dancers need around 2,200–2,300 plus calories to maintain weight. Most male dancers need around 2,700–3,000 plus calories to maintain weight. If dancers eat too few calories, they will lose muscle. A healthy diet is one that balances calories taken in with calories burned.
This diet states that eating precise combinations of protein and carbs places you in a metabolic “zone” in which fat loss becomes automatic because, theoretically, insulin production is controlled. (Insulin is the hormone responsible for depositing fat in the body.)
How It Works: Food is treated like a drug to be eaten in a controlled fashion and in precise portions. The plan is to eat three “zone friendly” meals and two snacks daily. Basically, this is another low-carb diet.
The Truth: Most dancers are not likely to be insulin-resistant, because they are active and insulin is suppressed with exercise. Moreover, insulin is necessary for keeping energy up and for promoting muscle building.
The biggest concern with these diets and the dozens of other fads out there is that you won’t gain any wisdom about how to eat right. The best approach to taking care of your instrument is to balance your overall caloric intake with your dance and work-out schedule. Never eliminate a food group, and commit to achieving your goals over the long term, rather than hoping for a short-term miracle that might hurt your health and compromise your performance and your future.