Company dancer Kimberly Cilento shares her journey to a gluten-free diet and how it helped with her energy in the studio. Next week, Kimberly will share some of her favorite recipes! Stay tuned!

As a dancer, a top priority is keeping my body and mind strong and healthy. Just like learning the proper ballet technique, this is certainly no easy task. Finding what works for me took time and a lot of trial and error. One change I found to make a big difference in my health and well-being was switching to a gluten-free diet.

My journey began six years ago right before starting my first season as a Trainee with The Washington Ballet. I was excited about moving to DC and starting on my path to becoming a professional ballerina. But I could tell something was off. Despite my enthusiasm and passion to start my next chapter, I felt weak and tired in ballet class. My jumps didn’t feel airy, my pirouettes didn’t seem to have enough snap, and getting through a class was draining. I knew it was time to reevaluate my nutrition and sought out a professional nutritionist who works with athletes and dancers specifically.

Through my work with my nutritionist, I learned two very important lessons. The first is that everyone’s nutritional needs are different and the key is finding what works for you. Just because my friend could eat a bag of Oreos and then run Serenade beautifully didn’t mean that I could, or should, be able to do that. The second is the power of eating gluten-free for my body. It is important to note that while some people require a gluten-free diet for medical reasons like celiac disease, others, like myself, choose this diet as a personal preference due to a sensitivity to gluten. Also, eating gluten-free may not be for everyone which is okay, too! Once I began eliminating gluten from my diet, I found my energy improved and I enjoyed my time in the studio again. My jumps felt lighter and I was turning up a storm! That is when I knew gluten-free was the proper choice for me and my body.

While it may sound like changing to a gluten-free diet was an easy fix, it certainly had its challenges. I had a lot to learn, starting with what gluten even was – a protein found predominantly in wheat, rye, and barley. These three grains tend to hide in many prepared foods you wouldn’t suspect like soups, dressings, sauces, meat substitutes, prepackaged meats and cheeses, and many prepackaged snacks. Therefore, learning to read nutrition labels was my next lesson. At first, I was discouraged as I felt limited by what I could not eat. But I quickly shifted my focus to all the foods that are naturally gluten-free like meats, seafood, nuts, seeds, dairy, legumes, fruits, veggies, and many grains. I learned to focus on these foods and how to prepare them quickly and easily so I didn’t have to rely on prepackaged products. I also discovered many gluten-free alternatives and swaps I absolutely can’t live without now!

Next, I started experimenting with alternative grains I had never eaten or even heard of before. My new go-to grains became rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and oats (make sure they are certified gluten-free). All of these can be eaten by themselves or made into flours to make gluten-free breads, baked goods, and crackers. It took me a little searching at first, but now I have many go-to recipes and products that are just as delicious as their gluten-based counterparts. One food I was determined not to miss out on was pasta. Low and behold there are many gluten-free alternatives for pasta as well! I have found my favorites to be chickpea pasta, lentil pasta, and spaghetti squash. Mix them with veggies, marinara, and parmesan cheese and you’ll never miss the gluten! Some other swaps I instituted were using coconut aminos instead of soy sauce, making my own salad dressing with olive oil and different kinds of vinegar, and using hummus in place of thick sauces.

Through my discoveries with gluten-free eating, I found a love for cooking and nutrition that has helped me stay healthy and feeling strong in and out of the studios. It is important to remember that there are many different facets and elements that enable a dancer to be in tip-top shape on stage and also maintain a healthy lifestyle. Everyone should customize their diet to their own body and unique nutritional needs and goals. I want to encourage everyone to find their own path and what works for them to achieve a healthy and happy self!