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High-Protein Diets: Dancers, Beware!
Why too much of a good thing can be bad
By Courtenay Schurman, CSCS for Dance Spirit Magazine December 2001
New exercisers, growing teenagers, dieters consuming too few calories, and endurance athletes like dancers all seem to require more protein than what is suggested as the RDA, or Recommended Daily Allowance. Dancers who consume too little protein are at greater risk for missing periods, suffering from stress fractures, lacking sufficient nutrients, and destroying lean muscle mass. Itís no wonder that dancers might be attracted to the Atkins, Zone, or Sugar Busters diets. Each plan recommends a diet high in protein.
Why such programs donít work for dancers
However, the high-protein diets listed above are also generally high in fat, inadequate in calories, and severely restrict the intake of carbohydrates. You learned in the November issue of Dance Spirit Magazine that eating a diet rich in complex carbohydrates is crucial for providing you with enough energy to participate in endurance exercise. People who succeed with the low-calorie, high-protein programs are usually sedentary and do not need the sustained energy that dancers participating in high intensity exercise do.
What happens to excessive, unused protein?
The body does not store excess protein as protein; just like any calories beyond the body's daily requirements, extra gets used as energy or stored as fat or muscle glycogen. Eating eggs or chicken is not what causes increased muscle development. What stimulates growth is the high intensity exercising that challenges the body and then requires repair. Protein simply provides our bodies with the essential amino acids, or building blocks needed to build lean muscle.
Your body needs a certain amount of protein to build muscle and repair tissue damage. Consuming protein beyond what the body can actually use results in excessive waste by-products such as ammonia or urea. According to Dr. Michael Colgan, our body protects itself by converting toxic ammonia into urea, which is then excreted by the kidneys. People with inflamed kidneys can suffer from low back pain or even worse. If your leotard or sweatshirt smells like ammonia after a workout, itís a pretty good indication that you need to reduce the amount of protein in your diet.
How much is enough?
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, recommends that young dancers should include .55-.6 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, a value 1.65 times higher than the RDA for sedentary people but not nearly as much as high-protein diets suggest. A dancer who weighs 132 pounds (60 kg) would need about 80 grams of protein daily. Over the course of a day, a well balanced diet sufficient in protein might include 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast, 3 ounces of salmon, and a cup of yogurt along with plenty of complex carbohydrates. For additional suggestions on how to include protein and carbohydrates, see the table below.
Balanced, healthy meals and snacks combining protein and complex carbohydrates
(Chart compiled using Bowes and Churchís Food Values of Portions Commonly Used)