By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
One of the things we can be assured of is that there will always be a new food, diet or health fad. Gluten free is the latest trend. Well-meaning celebrities and food companies out to capitalize on the latest fad, complicate the minefield of misinformation surrounding the topic of gluten. I have even seen bottled water and shampoo recently labelled as ‘gluten-free’. What are we to make of this new fad? What is gluten and should dancers avoid it?
For the majority of people, gluten is not a problem and is part of a normal healthy diet. However, there is a small segment of people who may need to limit or avoid it all together.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a term that describes tiny parts (amino acids) of a group of proteins. Basically it is a naturally occurring protein found in rye, barley, triticale, spelt, kamut, bulger, oat bran, some oats, and all wheat products. Gluten is what makes bread tender and doughy. Other food products that may also contain hidden gluten are malt flavor/ extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, beer and ale.
Should dancers avoid gluten?
The answer for the vast majority of dancers is NO! Gluten is not a scary, artificial, or chemical additive that must be avoided. It occurs naturally in the whole grain products mentioned above. Whole grains are an important source of good, energy producing carbohydrates that dancers need to keep them going during class, rehearsal, or performance. Whole grain products contain fibre, B-vitamins, some iron, and some protein. Dancers who unnecessarily avoid gluten may become deficient in important nutrients. For most people, there is no reason to avoid gluten and there are many reasons to eat the healthy whole grains that contain this natural protein.
Is there anyone who should avoid gluten?
Yes. Going gluten-free is the best known treatment for anyone with coeliac disease, an auto-immune condition in which the body reacts to gluten like it is a foreign invader. In these cases damage to the intestines results from eating gluten which causes pain, bloating and nutrient deficiencies.
The prevalence of gluten allergy has grown over the years. We are now more aware of it than ever. There may be cases of a more mild gluten intolerance that cause bowel discomfort, eating issues, and even behaviour problems, particularly in young children. Good scientific evidence in this area is in its preliminary stages. There is not enough evidence to suggest that avoiding gluten can help with autistic spectrum disorders.
If you suspect a gluten sensitivity talk to your physician or dietitian. A blood test can detect antibodies formed as an immune response to digested gluten.
Going gluten free requires careful reading of food labels and planning ahead if one is going out to eat. There are phone apps that help track the gluten content of many food items that can help with the confusion. Seeing a registered dietitian is very important if one suspects a gluten allergy or intolerance. Some gluten-free alternatives are corn, corn flour, quinoa, quinoa flour, rice, potatoes, soy flour, arrowroot, amaranth, flax, millet, bean flours and Jerusalem artichoke pasta. A gluten free diet can be healthy if planned well. In some cases a vitamin/ mineral supplement may be necessary.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.dancernutrition.com