The keto food pyramid (Getty Images)

Is the Keto Diet Safe for Dancers?

Boundless energy. A more "toned" feeling. Decreased inflammation. When Patricia Zhou (then dancing with the Staatsballett Berlin in Germany) heard a friend rave about the ketogenic diet's supposed effects over two years ago, she knew she had to give it a try. Zhou, who's now with L.A. Dance Project, stuck with the ultra-restrictive diet longer than most, but has since returned to eating normally. Why? And what can you learn from her experiences? DS spoke with Zhou and two nutritionists to find out.

Patricia Zhou (Da Dong, courtesy Zhou)

What's the Science Behind Keto?

The ketogenic diet, which is low-carb and high-fat, has been around since the 1920s, when it was developed to treat people with epilepsy who didn't respond to medication. "When the body is deprived of carbohydrates, it instead makes energy by turning the fat in foods you eat into acidic chemicals called ketones," explains Jennifer Medina, MS, RDN, CDN, CDE, who has counseled families about the ketogenic diet through the NYU Langone Epilepsy Center. This extreme state, in which your body burns ketones instead of glucose for energy, is called ketosis.

Getty Images

What Do You Eat on a Typical Day?

When Zhou was on the ketogenic diet, she might have two eggs cooked in butter and a coffee with coconut oil for breakfast, with a snack of macadamia nuts after morning class. Lunch would be a salad with lots of feta cheese, along with half an avocado with olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing. Dinner was fatty meat or salmon, plus cauliflower puréed with heavy cream, parmesan, and spices.

In a diet where 70 percent of calories come from fat, where are the healthy complex-carbohydrates that dancers need? Well, exactly. "Keto limits carbs to just 20 to 50 grams a day—and that's for an adult," Medina says. "The micronutrients we get from fruits, veggies, and grains just don't occur in keto-compatible food categories." Zhou had to take magnesium and potassium every day and drastically up her salt intake, because ketosis makes it hard to stay hydrated and retain essential electrolytes. Even with supplementation, "I always got muscle cramps and charley horses because I wasn't eating bananas," she says.

Getty Images

How Does It Feel to Be in Ketosis?

"I'd wake up really early, and not get tired during the day," remembers Zhou. "But I was hungrier than I needed to be a lot of the time, because I couldn't find keto snacks on the go." And as your body switches to using ketones for fuel, you can look forward to at least two to three days of the dreaded "keto flu": "You just feel really unwell," Zhou recalls. "I remember being in rehearsals and feeling so terrible that I didn't know if I could dance."

Zhou in rehearsal (Sebastián Cvitanic, courtesy Zhou)

Are There Risks?

"Constipation due to lack of fiber, stunted growth, loss of menstrual periods, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, elevated cholesterol that harms your arteries, and disordered eating behaviors have all been linked to the ketogenic diet," says Lisa Brown, MS, RDN, CDN, who specializes in eating disorders. "To do keto, I had to record every single thing I ate, take supplements, and cook every meal at home," Zhou adds. "It began to feel very restrictive and stressful in that I saw my friends way less because I 'couldn't' go out to dinner or have a slice of cake at a birthday party." Medina says that even severely epileptic patients on the ketogenic diet "have to be closely medically monitored because it's not the safest, especially for a young person."

So, What's the Bottom Line on Keto?

"Social-media influencers rave about keto, but ketogenic dieting is not sports nutrition," Brown says. Zhou did a lot of her own research before going keto: "Definitely consult a nutritionist, and even then I would proceed with caution—especially if you're still growing. If you're already a perfectionist, it can be very easy to spiral into craziness." Adds Medina, "We work with dancers from major companies here in NYC, and they all run out of steam if they don't eat carbs. To be your best self as an artist and as an athlete, keto is the antithesis of what you should be doing."

A version of this story appeared in the March 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Keto or No?"

Latest Posts

Photo by Jayme Thornton

How Paloma Garcia-Lee Manifested Her Dream Role, in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story"

On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it's something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. "I wrote in my journal: 'I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.'"

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo by @mediabyZ

Am I Less Committed to Dance Because I Have Other Passions? (Spoiler Alert: NO!)

Let's face it—dance is HARD, and in order to achieve your goals, you need to be committed to your training. "Still, there's a fine line between being committed and being consumed." Dancers can, and should, have interests outside of the studio.

Not convinced? We talked with dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements and two multifaceted dancers, Kristen Harlow (a musical theater dancer pursuing a career in NYC and Kentucky) and Kallie Takahashi (a dancer in her final year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and got the inside scoop on how having hobbies outside of dance can inform your artistry, expand your range and help prevent burnout.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo courtesy of Brittany Conigatti

Go Behind the Scenes of Annie Live! With Brittany Conigatti

Unwrap your candy canes, pour the hot chocolate and round up your fellow theater lovers: NBC is kicking off the Christmas season with its latest live-broadcast TV musical. Annie Live! premieres December 2 and features a star-studded cast, including Harry Connick Jr., Tituss Burgess, Megan Hilty and, as the title character, young phenom Celina Smith.

Luckily, people got a taste of what the special will entail when the cast kicked off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a performance last week. But since you’re never fully dressed without a Dance Spirit exclusive, we caught up with Brittany Conigatti, one of the young orphans and adult ensemble members in the show, to learn what it was like putting together a large-scale live production for the small screen.

The cast of Annie Live! poses for a group photo. The cast of Annie Live!Photo courtesy of Conigatti

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search