Performing takes an incredible amount of energy and stamina, so what you intake prior to your show is directly linked to your output. Here are just a few to limit or avoid and some alternatives that might be better choices for energy and health.
Study after study show that carbohydrates are always the body’s preferred source of fuel for performance. Performance-enhancing sources of carbohydrates are foods such as fruits, vegetables, oats, rice and other whole, minimally processed grains like quinoa, wheat or barley, for example. Even with pre-show nerves, don’t step on stage with an empty stomach. This will affect a dancer’s jump height, endurance and strength. Eat real food one to two hours pre-show, and have small snacks backstage as needed.
Foods high in saturated fat and protein take a little longer to digest than foods that are high in carbohydrate but moderate in fat and protein. Dancers about to perform need food that won’t sit like a rock on the stomach during the show. They need fuel that is easily digestible like rice, oats, quinoa, whole grain or gluten-free pasta, peas and soy.
Instead, choose: Quinoa burger with avocado on a whole grain or gluten-free bun (quinoa cooks in 15 minutes, so it can be easily made ahead).
#2. Protein shakes with whey protein powder
As a dance teacher, I often hear my students tell me that they don’t understand why they don’t have enough energy when they have a protein drink before dance. It’s because the body doesn’t like to use protein for energy, but instead prefers to spare protein and save it for important biological processes and muscle repair. The body will use protein if you don’t offer it any other choice (like carbohydrates), but this is not the preferred source of fuel for dancers who are more like a sprinter than a marathoner. A low carb protein drink will undoubtedly leave you feeling sluggish precisely because it’s low carb. In addition, whey is derived from cow’s milk, and dairy can cause allergic reactions, bloating and increase mucus production in many people.
Instead, choose: A blended fruit smoothie with almond or soy milk and seeds of your choice. Sweeten by adding a date, raisins or goji berries, instead of table sugar. Enjoy with a piece of toast or whole grain crackers. This provides a quick source of easily absorbed carbohydrates for energy.
#3. Super-caffeinated “energy” drinks
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, not something that actually provides real energy. Only food can be converted in the body to provide energy to working cells. Certainly, caffeine is considered an ergogenic aid in sports nutrition, meaning it can potentially decrease the perception of effort and increase alertness in people who are used to its effects. However, the big caveat is that too much will exacerbate your already jittery pre-performance nerves.
Instead, choose: Green tea, which has some caffeine, but only a fraction of what an “energy” drink supplies, or choose a caffeine-free electrolyte-infused rehydration drink. Either way, stay hydrated!
#4. Cookies or candy
A few cookies or some candy isn’t going to hurt anyone, and as a former dancer myself, I remember that we often had a few delicious treats in our dressing rooms to help us get through shows. That’s fine. But if you are relying on just these to get you through a whole performance or even just the first act, however, you are going to run out of fuel pretty fast. This is your big day; you have to eat real food to perform your best, not a bunch of sugar. Make sure you have had a real meal one to two hours before curtain.
Instead, choose: An oat bar.
#5. Bacon, sausage or other processed meats
These are high in saturated fat and nitrates, which negatively affect the cardiovascular system both in the short- and long-term. They cause inflammation, which is a dancer’s worst enemy. C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 are both biomarkers that researchers use to determine if something causes inflammation in the body. Both of these become elevated when an individual consumes red meat and particularly processed meats.
Instead, Harvard School of Public Health recommends choosing other protein sources such as beans, peas, seeds, legumes, fish or poultry for those who choose to eat chicken. These have been shown to be much less inflammatory.