Can dancers benefit from Intermittent Fasting? A dancer recently reached out inquiring about this trendy topic after reading about suspected associations between Intermittent Fasting and improvements in both cognitive (brain) functioning and energy. And to this dancer, intermittent fasting didn’t seem like a diet― all foods would technically be allowed so it wouldn’t be restrictive… right?
Not quite. If you’ve ever considered intermittent fasting (IF), you’ll want to understand the facts. In this article, we’ll assess whether intermittent fasting is right for you and your dance performance. As a disclaimer, this article will not cover the practice of fasting for religious or cultural reasons. Religious fasting presents many challenges for any dancer who is actively in treatment for an eating disorder or disordered eating. Here’s a great article that discusses more on the topic. Most importantly, if you’re navigating periods of religious fasting while healing your relationship with food, it’s essential to consult with a licensed dietitian who is versed in the treatment of eating disorders and disordered eating.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (also known as “IF”) is an eating regimen (code: diet) that involves specific stretches of time without eating. There are several different protocols. The most common is a “16:8” protocol, which involves not eating for 16 hours over a single day’s 24-hour period. In other words, you only eat during the 8-hour “allowed” period. More extreme protocols, such as the 5:2 plan, involve eating a standard amount of food for 5 days of the week and restricting the other 2 days to only 25% of one’s total daily calorie needs. Similar to most diets, IF is often disguised as an intervention for health― but what becomes more challenging for clinicians like me is the emerging body of research that, while large, doesn’t support the story often presented to the public. Let’s dive into it.
What Does The Research Say?
There are many reasons why one might consider intermittent fasting, from weight loss and disease prevention to the management of chronic health conditions― none of which (by the way) are supported by the evidence. Much like most nutrition research, studies on IF are limited to small sample sizes with no long-term follow-up. Any supposed benefits are often self-reported (code: unreliable) and not proven. More specifically, a review of the current research shows that when compared to other restrictive diets, intermittent fasting did not present any differences in changes in weight, body composition, blood pressure, and other cardiometabolic risk factors.
Furthermore, no research to date supports the use of Intermittent Fasting for dancers or athletes.
But what if I’m eating enough?
Unlike most other diets, intermittent fasting is controversial because technically, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re restricting calories enough to be in a calorie deficit. If you’re meeting your total nutrition needs during the “allowed” hours, then you can technically fuel your body sufficiently… right?
There are a number of reasons why even without a calorie deficit, intermittent fasting can impede a dancer’s performance potential.
#1: It doesn’t support a dancer’s unique energy needs
The body has two main sites for energy storage: glycogen and fat. When it comes to physical movement, the body prefers to burn glycogen because when compared to fat, glycogen is a more readily available fuel source that offers quick energy during times when quick movement is required (think petite allegro). Utilizing glycogen also allows the body to conserve protein and fat for processes like hormone production, vitamin transport, vitamin absorption, and even bone development.
Unlike fat, glycogen depletes rapidly. In fact, you can deplete your body’s glycogen over the course of 1 dance class. As a result, it’s critical to replenish your body’s glycogen throughout the day. If one is fasting too close to or during times of dancing, then glycogen will be nonexistent. The result? Low energy and poor performance.
#2: It doesn’t support a dancer’s unique mindset needs
Restrictive dieting doesn’t only involve reduced calorie intake. It also involves the placement of rigid rules around one’s eating habits. The moment we create a food rule as a means to control an otherwise biologically intuitive process (like eating for energy balance), we risk psychological repercussions. Obsessive thoughts about food and anxiety over meal planning are two examples. Simply put: when food is off-limits, even if only for a temporary period, we crave it more.
Isn’t it good to give our digestive tracts a break?
The purpose of digestion is to break down food for the use of metabolic processes and energy. Our bodies are designed to conserve these nutrients in a way that supports life even when food isn’t readily available. But instead of using this logic to manipulate your meal plan, realize that we’re all designed to take this “break.” In fact, we do it every day when we sleep. But if the aura of the trend still has you convinced, then consider your nighttime ZzZz an intermittent fast (or, in fancy terms, a nocturnal circadian rhythm fast). Just beware: Early workouts and late-night performances will benefit from a sufficient fuel supply. This is even more of a reason to steer clear of those food rules!
And P.S.- If you find yourself wanting to use intermittent fasting as a means to halt late-night grazing, then read this article to better tackle the behavior.
What if I eat intuitively when I’m not fasting?
You cannot be intermittently fasting and eating intuitively. Even if your ultimate goal is the same (whether it be weight changes, body composition changes, or “health,”) the two tools are polar opposites. Intuitive eating helps to build trust in your body’s ability to communicate hunger and fullness. Intermittent fasting requires the reliance on external cues (code: rules) to dictate when to eat. As with any diet (yes, even “clean” eating) intermittent fasting is a form of disordered eating. And since dancers have a three times higher risk of developing an eating disorder when compared to the general population, I stand firm that no dancer will benefit from intermittent fasting.