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When low carbs can cost you.

PROFESSIONAL DANCERS HAVE TO worry about looks just as much as models. It's hard to look lean and fit under the not-so-forgiving lights and stay nourished enough to do a knock-out performance. Dancers have many diet choices, too many that promise that all-elusive quick-fix: Atkins, South Beach, The Zone. But do they give you the energy and strength you need to dance?

Most of the new diets have rearranged the traditional food pyramid. Rarely does a person need eleven servings of starches a day, unless you're training for the Boston Marathon. In the latest diets, the trend is to increase the pyramid's allowance of protein and decrease the carbohydrates, while all diets recommend keeping an eye on your fat intake.

This makes sense, but only up to a point. Protein provides the building blocks for muscles and bones. Carbohydrates provide fuel for energy. Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal and whole wheat bread ultimately break down into simple carbohydrates like sugar. Eventually sugar breaks down into glucose, which is needed by the brain for normal functioning. Eating complex carbohydrates that take longer to break down into glucose keeps your blood sugar--and so your hunger and craving levels--low. Meanwhile fats ore needed to produce hormones, cell membranes, and padding for the internal organs, as well as padding the soles of your feet. Fat improves flavor in any food and so decreases hunger and cravings as well.

Not all the diets now in vogue ore equally suitable for high-powered athletes like professional dancers. The Zone diet, which has been formulated with athletes in mind, has a better approach than many. It recommends eating a variation on the nutritional pyramid called 40/30/30. This means at every meal you eat 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent proteins, and 30 percent fats. The Zone's website (zoneperfect.com) explains the philosophy and will even send you a starter kit, which is only one of its myriad products.

The trendy Atkins and South Beach diets, on the other hand, tell people to drop their carb intake radically and focus on proteins and fats. The object is to throw your body into ketosis. This means when blood glucose levels gel too low, the body begins to turn muscle, bone, and fat into carbohydrate in order to survive. Ketosis makes you feel lousy, but the Atkins' Website encourages you to persevere through this period. Still, how many dancers can afford to feel lousy for class, rehearsals, and performances while your body adjusts?

This early stage of the diet allows liberal amounts of fat and protein, and only twenty grams of carbohydrates per day. For comparison's sake, bear in mind there are twelve grams of carbohydrates in one cup of skim milk and seven grams in one average carrot. The Atkins approach promises weight loss of as much as one pound per day. Should a 110-pound female dancer lose that much? After two weeks, it could be bad. The traditional weight-loss recommendation is no more than two pounds per week.

The South Beach Diet is similar, but allows more carbohydrate consumption. I went to a recent nutrition lecture at a local ballet studio where a dancer confessed to having been on it and declared she'd never try it again. She found she had no energy before class, got dizzy during combinations, and felt nauseous through rehearsal. Dance is competitive. Can you afford not to look and feel your best?

Bad points aside, there ore some good points to these diets. You won't go wrong if you:

* Reduce white flour products like white bread and pastries.

* Cut out processed foods like potato chips and cookies.

* Avoid trans-fats/hydrogenated fats like margarine.

* Drink more water instead of sodas and sugary vitamin water.

* Reduce simple carbs such as white sugar products (most candies and sweets) which cause blood-sugar swings.

Calories do count, no matter what diet you're on. Go for quality of foods, not quantity. Always begin with moderate changes to your diet. No matter which diet you try, you'll have to learn maintenance. Commit to the long-haul, and you'll be in good shape forever.

Suzanne Martin is principal physical therapist for Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. She also has her own practice in physical therapy and Pilates.
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Title Annotation:Health and Fitness
Author:Martin, Suzanne
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:704
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