Nutrition

Nourishing Your Dancer Body: Understanding The Fundamentals of Making Good Food Choices

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.

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Dancers And Hydration

Dancers sweat. They sweat and they work their bodies for long periods of time–much like other athletes.

Enter hydration. Keeping your body properly hydrated is important as a dancer. Today we have Emily Harrison, MS, RD, LD with us to take a closer look at this key subject….

Emily Harrison, MS, RD, LD, Photo by Kim Kenney

Hydration

Even mild dehydration can affect performance.  Staying hydrated is extremely important to a dancer’s performance because the first signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance.  Thirst actually only kicks in after the body has lost 1-2 liters of water. If you are thirsty then you are already dehydrated.

The science:

Water makes up approximately 60% of body weight and is the largest component of the human body.  The muscles we work so hard to develop as dancers (skeletal muscles) are about 73% water, your blood is about 93% water and even bones and teeth have some water. Water is critical for maintaining homeostasis within the body and is important in the thousands of biochemical and physiological functions our body goes through every day. Water aids in digestion and is important in the transport and elimination systems of the body.

Overheating and performance:

It’s important for dancers to know that being properly hydrated helps keep the body from overheating. Helping the body promote heat loss when dancing full out will improve athletic performance and aid in recovery. This is especially important for dancers wearing hot costumes and performing under stage lights. Sweat losses during performance can be significantly more than during rehearsal of the same piece. This is why drinking regularly (even small, regular sips) is an important habit during a show.

How much is really needed? Can a dancer get fluids from other things besides water?

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Nutrition For The Dancer: Emily’s Apple And Pumpkin Oatcakes

Today I’d like to introduce Emily Harrison, who is sharing a great healthy recipe with us here at 4dancers, as well as talking a bit about nutrition. Part of our health/wellness focus for the month of February. I haven’t had a chance to make the recipe yet, but it sounds delicious and I can’t wait to try it!

Emily Harrison, MS, RD, LD, Photo by Kim Kenney

I am thrilled to be guest blogging with  4dancers.org. As a former professional dancer I learned early on in my career how important nutrition was to my performance. Now as the dancers dietitian, I work with dancers to help them be at their best with fewer injuries.

Nutrition is a complicated science, but if I had to only give one piece of advice it would have to be: “eat breakfast”. I know you all have heard this before, but you can’t minimize the importance of literally breaking the fasting state with a good source of complex carbohydrates.

Carbs have gotten a bad rap in recent years. But in fact carbs are the body’s preferred source of fuel for athletic activity. Complex carbs in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits give the muscles a prolonged source of energy that is critical in the type of start-stop activity we do as dancers. Whole grains are important sources of fiber, B-vitamins, iron, and folate. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get 55-60% of their total calories from carbohydrates. Carbs can be found in whole grain pasta, bread, rice, quinoa, barley, all vegetables and all fruits. How can something like that be unhealthy? Sure we want to avoid simple sugars in sweets, juices, soda, refined grains, and baked goods. Those kind of carbs won’t give you enough energy to get through tendus in class. But have three of my oatcakes for breakfast and dance strong all the way through grande allegro.

This recipe has become a favorite of the dancers that I do food demos for. In fact the dancers from Atlanta Ballet’s summer program loved them so much that they set off the fire alarms in the dorms making them the next day:

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