For over a decade, wellness culture has deemed gluten and dairy as the foes of “health.” This is especially true for those struggling with hormonal imbalances and autoimmune disorders. And in my 8 years of working as a dietitian for dancers, I’ve heard a multitude of reasons why dancers want to follow a gluten- and/or dairy-free diet (or, “lifestyle”). Promises to reduce skin breakouts, decrease inflammation, and even improve mood are just some. With dairy-free milk alternatives and gluten-free bread products easily accessible, it’s pretty easy to be, say “gluten-free.”
Now, there are legitimate reasons for needing to consider a gluten and/or dairy-free diet. Medically diagnosed gluten and/or lactose intolerances or allergies (like Celiac disease) are some examples. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition characterized by an inability to digest gluten. It only affects about 1 percent of the population but is more common among those with autoimmune conditions. If you struggle with any of the above, then I encourage you to work with a licensed dietitian to build a meal plan that honors your body’s health without sacrificing your mental wellbeing. Here’s an article to get you started.
But if you’re self-diagnosing a sensitivity or choosing to be gluten-free or dairy-free for reasons of “health” or “wellness,” then you’ll want to keep reading.
Why Gluten and Dairy?
When it comes to our livelihoods, diet culture likes to point a finger at food as having a direct impact on various health-related outcomes. Interestingly, the obsession over gluten and dairy surfaced back in the early 2000s. But what can seem like an innocent “lifestyle change” can often be a slippery slope into disordered eating.
Through restriction, we begin to overlook how we eat and instead focus only on what we eat. We become overly critical of ourselves and more often than not, feel overwhelming guilt after eating one of the foods deemed “not acceptable.” We then fall vulnerable to using compensatory behaviors like rebound eating and/or compulsive exercising, both of which drive us further from our instinctual abilities to support our body’s needs.
But Rachel, my stomach…
We’ve previously discussed the challenges faced when untangling the various reasons for experiencing functional digestive disorders, which often go misdiagnosed and can result from a multitude of factors, some of which include eating past fullness and high levels of stress.
In regards to gluten, in particular, the potential for a nocebo effect exists. This describes a phenomenon when merely thinking that something (like gluten) makes you sick can cause you to feel the supposed associated negative symptoms. Side note: this is different from the placebo effect, which is utilized in research to describe someone’s supposed positive response to a pseudo (or fake) treatment.
But like I’ve mentioned previously, stress and anxiety have been shown to trigger physical discomfort like bloat, gas, constipation, and overall unwellness. In a recent poll I did on Instagram (which by the way, should not be considered true evidence but rather, an interesting observation), 80% of dancers who follow a gluten-free diet admitted to feeling some degree of stress and anxiety over the situation! Similarly, when people who struggle with disordered eating are forced to change their routine (like going to eat at a restaurant), the anxiety over the experience (independent of the food itself) can arguably trigger discomfort.
…and my hormones are imbalanced!
Dancers between the ages of 9 and 16 might struggle with irregular and unpredictable periods, mood shifts, headaches, bloating, and other unpleasant symptoms that come alongside puberty. On the same side of the coin, adult dancers, dance parents, or dance educators might be navigating perimenopause (the time leading up to the cessation of your menstrual cycle). This usually begins anywhere during the ages of 45 to 55.
During these various times of life, hormonal shifts occur as your body’s production of estrogen and progesterone ebb and flow in an attempt to regulate. Though annoying and uncomfortable, these hormonal shifts are normal. Despite the messaging you might hear, there is no solid evidence supporting the use of gluten-free and/or dairy-free diets in the attempt to stop, “fix,” or “balance” hormones to relieve those uncomfortable symptoms.
Now, there are various medical conditions that can result from more severe hormonal balances. PCOS, Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA), and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are examples. If experiencing symptoms of severe hormonal imbalances like chronic fatigue and missing periods, then speak with your medical provider. A simple blood test can assess your estrogen and progesterone levels, along with other markers of thyroid function. Regardless, in most (if not all) of these cases, food restrictions are likely to cause more harm than good. This is especially true with HA, which is arguably a manifestation of undereating and over-exercising. Also, despite trendy advice, there currently is insufficient data to support going gluten-free for the treatment of Hashimoto’s disease. The only instance when a gluten-free diet might benefit someone with Hashimoto’s is if they also have celiac disease.
But what about acne?
Dairy is commonly demonized in conversations about skin health. This demonization became louder when a 2018 meta-analysis (a study that analyzes multiple studies) found that “any dairy, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, was associated with a relatively increased, but minor risk for acne in individuals aged 7–30 years.” But before you sign off dairy… keep reading.
Even the researchers suggested that in regard to these results, we “interpret with caution.” It’s incredibly important to understand the limitations of this analysis: mainly the reliance on self-reported (and highly unreliable) data. Read more about nutrition research and its many limitations here. The studies do not demonstrate that dairy directly causes acne and in conclusion, draw a very inconclusive result. Inconclusive data means that while some studies saw an impact, others did not. An example is that one study found that drinking whole milk and low-fat milk was not associated with acne risk, but skim milk increased the odds of developing acne.
The official position stance from The American Academy of Dermatology states, “limited evidence suggests that some dairy, particularly skim milk, may influence acne…” and “no specific dietary changes are recommended in the management of acne.” So, with such a lack of consistency in research, I do not recommend that dancers avoid dairy for reasons of acne.
And here’s what’s most interesting: a significant correlation does exist between acne and disordered eating. We could argue that people who drink skim milk (a lower calorie, lower fat, and often deemed “better” option by diet culture’s standards) might be partaking in restrictive disordered eating behaviors. Arguably, it’s possible that the restriction increases acne risk, not the milk itself. Christy Harrison explains this on her podcast (highly suggest you take a listen), stating that “disordered eating is a confounding variable that should be controlled for in the research…” To further the argument, Christy also explains that those already presenting with acne might struggle with the stress of poor body image, increasing their risk of developing disordered eating.
Okay, but I’m scared to re-introduce gluten and dairy!
If you’ve ruled out legitimate reasons for sticking to a gluten- and/or dairy-free diet, but you’re still struggling with the idea of NOT using almond milk in your coffee or coconut flour in your cookies, then I want you to ask yourself one question: what am I really looking for here?
Control over our food choices and the ingredients that go into our meals is a common reason why dancers might find comfort in sticking to a gluten- and/or dairy-free diet (or any restrictive diet, actually). Ask yourself: how do I feel when I’m not in control of what’s in my meal? If you’re feeling anxious and stressed, then there could be a layer of disordered eating that you’ll want to work through. And if that’s the case, then my program The Healthy Dancer can help.
Start here: Compassionate Curiosity
My question to you is: could your stress be triggering your experienced discomfort? Here’s what I want you to try:
- Experiment with ways to reduce stress and anxiety. This might mean re-evaluating your sleep habits.
- Reduce patterns of disordered eating by challenging your food rules and if practical, let someone else in your household take charge of food preparation.
- Reassess your movement patterns. Over-exercising can impair hormone function. Since dancers are naturally active, compulsive cross-training routines might be increasing your health risk.
- Get tested for Celiac disease and/or lactose intolerance. In some cases, people with disordered eating can develop temporary sensitivities to particular foods. I talk more about this here.
- For dairy, consider trying over-the-counter lactase enzymes. If you have a true intolerance, then you should see improvements in your symptoms.
Last, consider what it would mean if you were to re-introduce gluten and/or dairy back into your day. Is the anxiety so overwhelming that you feel it’s best to just exit this post and move on with your avoidance? Could that response be a reflection of a disordered relationship with food? Or, maybe you feel like you’re ready to slowly re-introduce these foods and assess your body’s response (dare I say, even sit with some discomfort!). Whichever you decide, comment your thoughts! This is a pretty hot topic in the wellness world and I’d love to hear your opinion!