A common misconception among dancers is the idea that a “healthy” diet means eating the “right” foods, avoiding the “bad” foods, and achieving a certain weight. But being a healthy dancer goes beyond this.
I often see dancers strive for a “perfect” diet as a means to unlock their performance potential and/or reach their dance goals. Striving for perfection, however, risks unhealthy habits, even when those habits are coming from a meaningful place. Remember: perfection doesn’t exist and when we strive to implement perfection or “clean” standards on our food choices, we risk entering a restrictive tunnel of eating, ultimately leading to burnout.
To best address the role of nutrition in a dancer’s diet, let’s look at the most common questions we receive.
Question 1: What types of food should dancers eat?
To preface the types of foods recommended in a dancer’s diet, it’s important to address a dancer’s calorie needs. I don’t often focus on calories when working with dancers, however, many dancers tend to underestimate their calorie needs. Calories provide the energy needed to not only perform, but also to sustain basic metabolic functioning. Though calories are often feared in our diet-obsessed culture, calories are essential to a dancer’s active lifestyle. Eating too few calories risks injury and nutrient deficiencies.
A balanced diet incorporates meals and snacks that balance all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. This ratio, or what I like to call the “nutrient mix,” is critical to a dancer’s menu.
Carbohydrates are a dancer’s best source of energy. Complex carbs are found in plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains, such as oats, farro, bulgur, barley, and freekah, are particularly high in energizing nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Quinoa is technically a seed, but often eaten like a grain. Remember, non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens) should not replace grain-based carbs on your plate. Incorporate both as part of a balanced meal.
Protein has long been considered the star macronutrient in our diet-drenched culture. While protein plays a key role in muscle building, the body also requires carbs and fats. Without these two macros, the body breaks down muscle (protein stores) for energy. Protein is found in both animal- and plant-based foods. Animal-based proteins like fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt are considered high in biological value. In other words, these proteins provide all essential amino acids for muscle building. Vegetarians and vegans can obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based diets; however, it requires proper planning. The good news? Today’s food landscape offers an abundance of plant-based high-quality proteins such as pseudo-cereals (quinoa and buckwheat) and ancient grains (farro and freekah). A diet rich in these foods as part of a variety mixed with veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes can provide all essential amino acids to working muscles.
Fat is an essential nutrient for a dancer’s active body. Our society’s overwhelming fear of fat however often overshadows the vast health benefits surrounding this macronutrient. Adding fat to a meal promotes satisfaction, which keeps us full throughout the day. A dancer’s body undergoes a great deal of wear-and-tear from high levels of physical activity. Unsaturated fats predominantly found in oils (olive and canola), fatty fish (salmon, tuna), avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butters offer anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce inflammation and promote muscular repair.
Question 2: How much water should a dancer drink during the day?
Our body is made of 60% water and therefore, it’s critical to replenish and hydrate! I encourage dancers to aim for at least 3 liters of water daily. Daily needs may be higher if dancing for longer than 60 minutes and/or in hot and humid environments. To optimize your hydration on intense dancing days, add a salty snack (like pretzels) and a simple carbohydrate (like fruit) to replenish electrolytes and muscle glycogen.
BTW- our thirst mechanism doesn’t activate until the body is already approaching dehydration. Instead of relying on thirst to dictate your water intake, plan ahead and remain diligent. A 1-liter reusable water bottle is a great way to remember to hydrate regularly. Refill it 3 times throughout the day!
Question 3: Okay, but I really, really LOVE sweets! How do I banish these cravings?
The best way to banish cravings is to ENJOY them! Though we sometimes feel that sugar is addicting, I don’t believe in deprivation, as there is evidence to support the fact that RESTRICTIONS drive cravings. Intense cravings often result from the moral value placed on more indulgent foods. When we label these foods as “bad” and/or place these foods on a self-imposed “forbidden food” list, we subconsciously desire them. Humans are curious beings… we want what we can’t have! Rather than running from your cravings, enjoy them mindfully and as part of a well-rounded meal plan.