If you’re a dancer who is debating breakfast cereal as an option to start the day, then you’ve come to the perfect place! A culturally-constructed fear of carbohydrate-rich foods makes breakfast cereal the target of debate. But breakfast cereals (and carbs in general) can be a nutrient-packed addition to a dancer’s diet. This article will help to shift your perspective about breakfast cereal in a way that enables you to enjoy a bowl without guilt. We’ll also uncover how to optimize your bowl, when feasible, to maximize your performance.
Are breakfast cereals healthy?
Breakfast cereals are considered carbohydrate-rich foods. But there are exceptions. Alongside the popularity of the keto diet comes cereals that are created and marketed to be “low carb,” “grain-free,” or “high protein.” I’ve previously discussed the role of carbohydrates in a dancer’s diet. I’ve also discussed why dancers should steer clear of trends like the keto diet. These alternatives often replace grains with other starches like potato starch and rely on processed fibers like chicory root for consistency. Sugar-free alternatives like monk fruit and sugar alcohols are then added for flavor, but oftentimes can leave dancers feeling physically unwell with stomach distress.
To review, carbohydrates support a dancer’s energy both now and later. Fiber, as a functional component to carb-rich foods like cereal, aids in digestive regularity and microbiome health. Grain-based carbohydrates are also particularly high in B-vitamins, which are known to support metabolism. Any effort to limit this macronutrient, unless required for a medical diagnosis like Celiac Disease, will come with an influx of consequences. These include diminished endurance, digestive irregularity, slowed metabolism, and increased cravings.
But sugary cereals cannot be healthy, right?
Do you recall the breakfast cereals lining the lower shelves? The ones whose boxes are lined with pops of color, cartoon characters, and games. Can these options be included in a dancer’s diet?
The funny thing is, in my training as a licensed dietitian, we’re taught about the classic and strategic marketing tactics of companies making cereal boxes most easily visible to the youngest of consumers: children. Diet culture further exacerbates perceived “caution” around these options with the primary reasons being:
- Sugar content.
I’ve debunked the misconceptions about both added sugar (read about here) and chemical additives (read about here). But here are a few key points to consider:
- Total elimination of added sugar is practically impossible and can lead to obsessively restrictive disordered eating habits.
- There is no substantial evidence supporting the claim that sugar is addicting. On the contrary, there are studies to show that food restriction is likely to cause overeating! (More on food addiction in this article)
- Research that associates excess added sugar with poor heart health exemplifies that consuming 10% of one’s total calories per day (the recommended daily limit for added sugar) puts consumers in the lowest risk category for poor heart health. Since most dancers need a hefty amount of calories per day, this equates to a recommended “allowance” of more than 5o grams of added sugar each day. While we don’t have to purposely aim for this amount, it should offer some comfort knowing that a bowl of your favorite “sugary” cereal won’t make or break your health.
- In regard to food coloring, the research does not currently support bold claims against their consumption since “exposure to food-color additives in the United States by average and high-intake consumers is well below the acceptable daily intake of each color additive.” (here’s a great article for reference).
- Bottom line: regulated food additives need not be feared!
How can I choose a breakfast cereal that works best for me and my goals?
Gentle nutrition and food flexibility, as tools of The Healthy Dancer® framework, can help you in your decision-making around food. This includes those deemed “healthy” AND those deemed “less nutritious.” For the sake of this article, we’ll walk through the process and how it relates to breakfast cereal.
The ultimate goal is to choose a breakfast cereal that supports you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Now, I totally realize how silly it sounds to associate your morning bowl of cereal with your emotional and mental well-being. But restrictive food rules can leave you feeling unsatisfied and in the long term, sacrifice your relationship with food. So, let’s implement this fun algorithm that I designed for The Healthy Dancer®.
The Healthy Dancer Food Flexibility Algorithm
Not quite sure how to incorporate breakfast cereal in a way that is guilt-free? The Food Flexibility Algorithm can be used with any food or food group and involves a series of questions centered around discovery and reflection.
What’s My Intent?
The first place to start is with the intent behind your choices. Diet culture often suggests that intent be related to body weight. I encourage you to utilize food as a tool for performance, not for weight manipulation (I realize that this is easier said than done… here’s why). Here are a few other ideas to consider when identifying your intent:
- Nourishment (biological hunger)
What am I craving?
Now, consider your desire. Cravings are born from positive-emotional experiences with food. They intensify with deprivation: simply put: the longer you go without eating a specific food, the more likely you are to crave it. On the biological level, hormones like neuropeptide-Y and leptin can drive cravings, specifically for energy-dense foods rich in carbohydrates and fat, respectively. Consider your cravings and desires. Ask yourself: what will enable me to feel satisfied?
What is accessible to me at this moment?
If you’re craving the nostalgia of sugary cereal, then that option would support you at this moment. If it’s accessible to you, then great. But while listening to satiety cues and discovering satisfaction are both aspects of intuitive eating, they’re not the entirety.
A major part of intuitive eating that often gets lost in translation is the importance of food accessibility (learn more about this misconception and how to navigate through it). Contrary to only prioritizing satisfaction, intuitive eaters prioritize their body’s need for calories as nourishment. If you’re hoping for a higher-fiber cereal that supports longer energy, but all that’s available is an option deemed “highly processed” or “sugary,” then that is what will support your body at this moment. Food neutrality, a topic you can learn more about here, strips the glorification of some foods (most often “clean,” “whole” foods) and demonization of other foods (most often “processed” foods). Food neutrality for dancers reduces the shame and guilt often associated with foods that may be more accessible.
Can gentle nutrition support my goals?
When it’s feasible, consider how nutrition can be integrated in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling unsatisfied or obsessed. Ask yourself: will nutritionally-optimizing this meal (or snack) leave me feeling satisfied and fulfilled? Here are two examples:
For me, Fruit Loops is a cereal that I love, mainly because of the nostalgic connection it provides me with. From experience, I’ve learned that replacing Fruit Loops with a “healthified” version leaves me feeling unsatisfied and disconnected. I know that when it comes to Fruit Loops, I prefer the real deal when it’s accessible to me.
Now, let’s say I’m gearing up for a morning audition. I know that a carbohydrate-rich breakfast will support my energy for the long morning ahead. Since a bowl of Fruit Loops is lower in fiber, lower in protein, and even lower in fat, then I’ll feel hungry shortly after eating. The higher sugar content may even leave me feeling a bit sluggish by adage. So, I’ll plan to save that option for another time and instead, apply some gentle nutrition to help optimize the situation. Here’s how:
- First, consider balance: adding a source of protein (ie. mik or a plant-based alternative) can help. Another idea is to top your favorite yogurt with cereal. Since protein in generally low in fat, adding some seeds (ie. flax, chia) and/or chopped nuts (ie. almonds, walnuts) can help to leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied for longer.
- Next, aim for fiber. A higher-fiber cereal with less added sugar will support longer energy without major blood sugar spikes. Kashi, Nature’s Path, and Ezekiel are a few personal favorites.
- Then, add some naturally-occuring color. Produce, like berries and bananas are examples. Color boosts the amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your day. But realize that many cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals. So, if fresh fruit isn’t accesible… no need to stress!
Reflect and Learn
At this point, reflect upon what works and what doesn’t work. Our food choices might not be perfect 100% of the time. Sometimes, we’ll leave a meal (or snack) feeling satisfied, and other times, we’ll feel disappointed. Going back to that intent, if your priority is nourishment, then the healthiest choice for you is the one that is most accessible. If your priority is energy or performance, then you may need to integrate a bit more gentle nutrition into your choice.
Fun fact: I avoided breakfast cereal for years fearing that once I started eating a bowl, I’d finish a whole box in one sitting. Finally breaking free from that fear helps to strip the point of deprivation. From here, you’re left with a mindset of abundance knowing that come tomorrow, you could eat a bowl if and when you desire it. Remember: your health and performance are products of patterns of behaviors. Utilize The Healthy Dancer Food Flexibility Algorithm to build trust with yourself and ALL foods.