Keeping the Gluten Intolerant Dancer Healthy

by Colleen McCarthy, RD, LD, CMT, LMT, guest author

Dancing at a professional level requires being present in class and rehearsals, constantly striving to be at a very competitive level. My first professional job dancing with a company was a dream for me and I was going to do whatever it took to be successful.  Turns out, this was a health nightmare that just kept getting worse. No matter how well I thought I was fueling my body by eating whole grain foods, protein, fruits and vegetables, I was experiencing severe stomach pain, bloating, and headaches. I found myself not wanting to be in class, trying to dance through the stomach pain, bloating, and confusion, which was completely impossible. My weight was dropping without explanation, my dancing was getting sloppy, I could not remember choreography and I was always fatigued no matter what I tried.  I was at the end of my rope as I had no idea why this was happening all of a sudden. My resolution to the pain of not eating resulted in a hip injury that kept me out of dance for a year. After seeing many doctors about what I was experiencing, I was not getting answers.  I was devastated. After months of suffering, I finally decided to go see a dietitian.  After just one time seeing her, I found I was gluten intolerant. At first, I was skeptical because how could this one ingredient present in so many foods cause this much pain to the point where dancing suffered so greatly?

Removing gluten completely from my diet made me feel “normal” again. The stomach pain, bloating, constipation, confusion, headaches that I had been experiencing were suddenly gone. I was back in ballet class everyday and I got a job dancing again. Everything seemed to fit back into place. After I figured out how to fuel my body correctly with the nutrients my body needed to dance at the professional, level my energy was through the roof. I was amazed. My body completely changed. Seeing results from just changing the way I ate, and finding out about my gluten intolerance, had a huge impact on my dancing. I felt stronger, my muscles were more defined, I was not bloated, I had more energy than I ever had before, and I was quickly picking up choreography again.  It was a complete life change.  After what I experienced I decided to go back to school to become a dietitian. I wanted to help people become aware of how food can affect your whole body system.

After personal experience living gluten free, I was hearing talk about a remaining feeling of fatigue and was also experiencing this myself, I did some research. Fatigue is very common among dancers if they do not fuel their body right and it’s even harder when you are gluten intolerant! A very common nutrient deficiency among gluten intolerant individuals is vitamin B12.  Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms include: lack of coordination, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, muscle weakness and balance problems, lacking in coordination and balance. These side effects can be a little bit of a problem for dancers because strong muscles, coordination, balance and not to mention feeling in our feet are very important for a dancer to posses.

Here are some foods that contain B12 that you may want to increase if you are having these issues.


One simple solution to help your body from losing those important B vitamins is limiting  sugar and caffeine in your diet as much as you can. Sugar and caffeine will both give you a quick burst of energy, but will likely end in a blood sugar crash and may lead to chronic fatigue if you are relying on these two nutritionally devoid sources to fuel your body throughout the day. Here are a few things that I like to keep in my bag and a few of my fellow dancers love as well:

Kale Chips
Kind Bars
Raw veggies and hummus
Oranges, apples, grapes, kiwi, bananas
Mixed nuts
Gluten free crackers and hummus
Dried fruit (check the ingredients list for oat bran)
Tuna fish and gluten free crackers
Hard boiled eggs
Banana with almond butter

Healthy fats are also very important to have in our diet because our body uses fats as fuel to sustain energy, and also to deliver fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.  As dancers, we often avoid fats due to the fact we believe they are going to make us gain weight. But with all  the hours of rehearsals we put our body through, having healthy fats in our diet is something we have to get used to,  especially having a  gluten sensitivity which may be inhibiting proper nutrient absorption. Sustaining energy levels can be tricky when first starting out on a gluten free diet, so here are some examples of healthy fats to include in your diet:

Olive oil

Eating right and balancing the right fuel for your body makes a huge difference.  Keeping your body fueled for those endless hours of rehearsal and show weeks can be tricky and take a good amount of  daily planning, but feeling great and having the energy you need to for those dance classes and/or rehearsals is the best reward to yourself!

Here are just a few recipes that I love to make on the weekends and have them for the entire week to eat!

  1. Quinoa Salad:
  2. Quinoa and Broccoli Bake:
  3. Some sustaining recipes:

Staying healthy at “home base,” as I like to call it is one thing, but if you are a dancer that tours all over the country, it can be a bit tricky to ensure that you do not accidently ingest gluten.  Be sure to review CeliacCorner’s  safe and unsafe lists of gluten-free food, especially “other sources of gluten” which you can take on the road with you – start here.

So sew up those pointe shoes, grab your snacks and get on with your dancing!

 Colleen McCarthy RD, LD, CMT, LMT is a registered dietitian, massage therapist and owner of On Pointe Nutrition. She holds a bachelor of arts in dance and a bachelor of science in dietetics, and she is nationally certified in massage therapy and has experience working for sports teams and chiropractors around the Atlanta Area.She completed her clinical nutrition supervised practice at Grady Memorial Hospital, Northside Hospital Atlanta and Forsyth locations, as well as many others in the Atlanta area, and now has her own practice, On Pointe Nutrition. Colleen specializes in food allergies/ intolerances and sports/wellness nutrition. She is also a freelance professional dancer and knows the value of proper nutrition to increase endurance and performance.Having celiac disease, gives her firsthand experience and knowledge dealing with food allergies, intolerances and how detection of these is so important to your overall and future health.
In her free time Colleen loves listening and going to see live music, dancing, pilates, yoga, shopping, spending time with her nephew and being with friends and family.
(copyright info for images: dancing images – Candace Perry Photo; headshot of Colleen – EmmaJDesign)   

Thanks Colleen! 

You can follow & contact Colleen here:


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On October 1st, 2012, posted in: CeliacCorner Blogs by
5 Responses to Keeping the Gluten Intolerant Dancer Healthy
  1. […] McCarthy RD, LD, CMT, LMT, guest author on the website Celiac Corner, wrote in the article “Keeping the Gluten Intolerant Dancer Healthy, that she also experienced confusion and trouble picking up choreography. Many people have also […]

  2. Thank you Colleen, I enjoyed your article.

  3. It is so helpful to read about other’s personal experiences with these kinds of health issues. I had been going to my doctor for years with similar symptoms and being shrugged off….being told it was all caused by anxiety and depression and not being taken seriously. After demanding a blood test for Celiac I received a note in the mail about a week later with two words on it….”no Celiac” followed by a smiley face. At that point, I took matters into my own hands and went to see a gastro-interologist who diagnosed me as having S.I.B.O. (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) which needed to be treated and my diet changed. Primary care physicians need to wake up and become educated! Not everything can be cured with a trip to CVS!

  4. I L.O.V.E. the photo of you at the top of page, AMAZING. Thank you for the information, I am pretty sure I have a gluten sensitivity so I plan to start a gluten free diet pretty soon.

  5. Colleen, I can’t even imagine being a dancer and going through what you did to finally arrive at a diagnosis. You must have felt awful. Glad you are feeling well again.

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