by Diana Clanin, M.F.A., AT
Dancers have such a love-hate relationship with food! Of course we need it: it gives us sustenance, repairs our over-worked bodies, and provides us with energy. And of course we enjoy it: it not only tastes good, but is part of every cultural and social life-occasion from birth to death. Yet, we are often afraid that it will make us – and I shudder to even write the word – fat. So we teeter between trying to be super vigilant about nutrition, and the fear of gaining weight. And the less food we eat, or the more we try to avoid eating, the more we focus on it. It’s an ongoing internal conflict.
As The Stomach Growls
So why is this so hard? Seems like balancing food intake, good nutrition, and weight would be as straight forward as a tendu devant. But dancers have a unique challenge: how to get the optimal nutrition we need in the fewest possible calories.
To complicate matters further, between the print and broadcast medias, and our hyper-immersion in “smart” electronic communication gadgetry, we are on information overload. Sadly, very little of what passes for nutrition “news” is fact or evidence based. If you are increasingly confused about what to believe, you are not dancing solo. Much published nutritional advice or claims are dubious attempts to sell you some product, which may or may not perform as described. Influencing you to purchase a supplement or special “food” often means convincing you that you have some critical deficiency, or are needlessly suffering from a chronic lack of energy. It is fear-based marketing psychology and you are the target.
Keeping It Simple
So let’s start by laying down a few basic guidelines for making sane and healthy – and economical – choices:
1. Eat food as close to how Mother Nature packaged it as possible.
- Avoid pre-packaged food mixes (Bisquick, Hamburger Helper, etc.).
- Stick with whole grains: 100% whole grain cereals, breads, and pastas. If it is white, Don’t Bite! (In the grain department, that is.)
- And…if it came through the car window, is it really food?
2. Eat several small meals a day and include components from each of the macro-nutrient food groupings each time.
- This means be sure you have protein, fats, and carbohydrates in your selections each time you eat. Examples: yogurt and fruit with granola, or cheese and whole grain crackers with vegetable sticks.
- Try eating five or six small meals instead of three larger ones. This will give you more even, sustained energy and allow you to metabolize the food more efficiently.
- And yes, this DOES mean that you may have to do a little food research!! – to learn which foods fall into which the various macro-nutrient categories (i.e., is it a protein? A fat? A carbohydrate?). In general, for dancers trying to eat healthy / maintain weight, and get good nutrition for energy, these guidelines are recommended for daily intake:
+ Protein 12-15%
+ Fat 20-30%
+ Carbohydrates 55-60%
Speaking of carbs, it’s good to learn what are healthy carbs (called “complex carbs”, like fruits / veggies / bagels, breads and pastas made with whole grains) and what are not-so-healthy-carbs (called “simple carbs”, like sugars and white grain products).
IADMS – the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science – has an excellent fact sheet on Nutrition for Dancers under the “Resources” tab on the left side of the home page – if you aren’t that familiar yet with different foods and nutritional information, this can be a great start.
3. Eat a wide variety of foods.
Do not eat the same thing day after day! There are over 14,000 nutrients known (and many more to be yet discovered). No one food contains them all, so in order to ingest as many as possible over time, you need to mix it up a bit! For instance, don’t eat the same thing for breakfast every morning: rotate cereals, eggs, lean meats, whole grain pancakes, oatmeal, etc.
4. Eat the rainbow.
This means LOTS of fruits and vegetables of vibrant, deep colors. Generally speaking, the more intense the color, the greater the nutrient content. Fresh fruit and vegetables are fabulous, but frozen and low-sodium canned vegetables are a good source of nutrition too.
5. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
Nobody wants to be in a leotard in front of a mirror feeling like they just swallowed a bowling ball. Not rushing through a meal or snack also tends to reduce the quantity of food eaten at any one sitting. Your brain gets the message that food has arrived before you eat more than you need. A good habit is to stop eating when you feel 2/3 full.
A final Word to the Wise: PLAN AHEAD.
Always carry food with you. You can never rely on healthy options being available for purchase when you are suddenly hungry and exhausted, and even if you could go home at that moment, it would still be another 40 minutes before you actually had food in your stomach.
And a really, really final word: ENJOY EATING. Food should be relished. You are nourishing this wonderful body that does so much for you! It’s the least you can do in exchange for multiple pirouettes and marathon rehearsals!
Editors’ note from Jan Dunn:
There are a number of books on nutrition for dancers – all are available on Amazon.com:
–Nutrition for the Dancer by Zerlina Mastin (Sep 11, 2009)
–Diet for Dancers: A Complete Guide to Nutrition and Weight Control by Robin D. Chmelar and Sally S. Fitt (Jan 1, 1990)
–The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition by Linda H. Hamilton and New York City Ballet (Dec 23, 2008)
–The Care and Feeding of a Dancer: What You Need to Know On and Off the Stage by Toni Branner and Jenna Branner (Nov 1, 2007)
We will have future articles on nutrition for dancers next year — in the meantime, eat well / dance well!
BIO: Diana Clanin, M.F.A., AT is a native of southern California, Diana has combined a virtual life-long involvement in Dance with a background in exercise science, nutrition and sports medicine.
Her dance career encompasses over 50 years as a performer, teacher, artistic director and choreographer in diverse dance techniques within numerous genres ranging from concert stage to musical theater and television.
As an allied health professional, she has worked as an educator, researcher, and practitioner in clinical, commercial, and university settings. An early researcher in the emerging field of dance medicine and science, she was the first researcher to present on a dance injury topic to an international scientific conference at the 1984 International Olympic Scientific Congress. She also served as Associate Editor for the first dance medicine peer-reviewed scientific journal, “Kinesiology and Medicine for Dance”.
A graduate of the University of California, Irvine, Diana has held faculty appointments at several colleges and universities, and has appeared as guest faculty at over a dozen other universities in the United States, teaching in the fields of both dance technique and health science. Her dance science/ injury prevention workshops and master classes have additionally been presented for seven national dance associations, and innumerable private studios, professional academies, summer intensives, and regional/national professional companies throughout the country. Diana has also designed and implemented comprehensive wellness programs for pre-professional training institutions, most notably the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC.
Currently, Diana resides in Aurora, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she continues to serve as a consultant and educator to the dance community as founder and director of Dancing Well. In addition to her ongoing work in the areas of nutrition and technique correction for injury prevention and recovery, she has recently completed certification as a Level III Franklin Method educator. Incorporating this approach to experiential anatomy and imagery application enables her to more fully address the needs and development of the performing artist.