Carbohydrates, protein, and fat—the three macronutrients of a dancer’s fuel mix that we know to balance throughout the day. But there’s another component to the mix that might just play one of the most important roles in your performance.
From digestive regularity and immunity to satiety and sustained energy, fiber is surely a buzz-worthy topic worth learning about. Despite the official recommendation for adults to consume 25-30 grams of dietary fiber per day, however, the average intake for Americans rests at about half.
And between busy schedules and constant physical exertion, dancers need fiber to regulate energy levels, maintain satiation, and encourage a moving digestive system. Since fiber is an essential component of a dancer’s diet, let’s discuss why and how you can assure that your fiber needs are met.
What is Fiber?
Dietary fiber, or that coming from food, is a starch found in plants. This fibrous starch resists digestion, allowing it to move through our digestive tract essentially intact. Most notably, fiber’s indigestibility steadies the body’s release of glucose (AKA sugar) into your blood. This results in a sustained release of energy that can take you through a day of classes and rehearsals. Fibrous foods are often prescribed when one struggles with constipation as the added bulk helps to move food along throughout the digestive tract. Fiber also keeps us feeling full and even provides the nourishment needed for your gut microbiome.
Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber—What’s the Difference?
Dietary comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. The difference is simple: soluble fiber dissolves in water, whereas insoluble fiber does not. However, each type of fiber has its own unique role in the body:
- Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance as it absorbs water (like a sponge) whilst traveling through your digestive tract. This slows the movement of food, allowing for the regulation of blood sugar (and thus, energy). Soluble fibers also bind with bile acids in the small intestine, thereby removing them from the body. The loss of bile acids stimulates the liver to utilize cholesterol to replenish the bile acid supply, which as a result, reduces concentrations of LDL (AKA “bad”) cholesterol. Soluble fibers even enable the fermentation needed to provide prebiotic nourishment for our gut bacteria. Sources of soluble fiber include oats, chia, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), flax, vegetables, apples, and/or citrus fruits.
- Insoluble fiber does not absorb water and thus adds bulk to your stool. This speeds the movement of intestinal content through your digestive tract, allowing for regular and healthy bowel movements. Insoluble fiber also promotes gut health via prebiotic fermentation. Sources include plant foods with edible peels or seeds (think apples, cucumbers, figs, etc.), whole grains, corn, whole wheat bread products, cauliflower, potatoes, nuts, and green beans.
So is one type of fiber better than the other? No. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are necessary for overall health. And aside from the benefits mentioned above, both are shown to regulate appetite levels and aid in disease prevention (lowering the risks of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, and even heart disease). In fact, most plant foods contain a mixture of both fibers, so no need to obsess about which fibers are coming from specific foods.
Okay, But How Much Should I Get?
Daily fiber needs vary between age groups with 25-40 grams being the general range. It’s known that the general American population only consumes about 15 grams of fiber per day, but with popular movements like “clean eating,” many dancers are likely hitting (or surpassing) their maximum fiber needs.
To assess how much fiber you’re getting in a day, we must first breakdown the various sources of fiber in your diet. As mentioned earlier, “dietary fiber” includes naturally occurring intact fibers. However, the FDA allows for this definition to include several processed fibers (those extracted from plant sources). Let’s break it down:
Intact Fibers are considered “intact” because they have not been removed from their original food source. Vegetables, whole grains, fruits, cereal bran, flaked cereal, and flours are examples. Sufficient research supports the health benefits of intact fibers.
Processed or Functional Fibers (sometimes referred to as isolated fibers) are used to fortify foods that are not naturally high in fiber (think: processed foods listing 10 grams or more of fiber per serving, like a “high fiber” bar). Common types that you might spot on labels include Beta-glucan, Psyllium husk, Cellulose, Guar gum, Pectin, Locust bean gum, and Inulin. You’ll also find these used in fiber supplements, powders, and tablets. These fibers offer some of the benefits of naturally occurring fibers, however, research supporting long term use is limited. Furthermore, processed fibers lack the additional nutrients found in naturally-occurring fibrous foods. This is why I encourage a food first approach as a healthier and cheaper route. Aim to include fibrous food sources throughout your daily meal plan. A plant-based lifestyle is naturally higher in fiber especially when it includes whole foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, and veggies. To learn more about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, check out this article.
Tips to increase your fiber intake:
- Choose whole grains and whole-grain bread products over refined versions.
- Increase plant-based meals (eggplant lasagna, bean burgers, bean pasta).
- Add fruit, popcorn, nuts, seeds, and whole-grain crackers to snacks.
- Add extra veggies with meals.
- Include fibrous foods throughout your week (split peas, figs, peas, lentils).
Is It Possible To Get Too Much?
With processed fibers easily accessible throughout today’s food supply, it is possible to go overboard on the good stuff. That said, there is actually no Upper Tolerable Limit for fiber, which makes it hard to identify a maximum requirement. It’s therefore necessary to assess one’s individual tolerance to a high-fiber diet. For some, excessive intakes of fiber can result in negative consequences like bloating, excess gas and stomach discomfort, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This is especially apparent when one increases his or her fiber intake quickly and without increasing the amount of water consumed during the day.
What If I’m Struggling … In the Bathroom?
Assess your personal tolerance to a high-fiber diet. If you’re struggling with loose stools (AKA diarrhea), add sources of soluble fiber to your meals. This will help to absorb some of that excess water. On the flip side, if you’re struggling with hard stools (AKA constipation) then add sources higher in insoluble fiber to move things along (however, you’ll need to up your water intake as well!)
I Heard Fiber Helps With Weight Loss. Is This True?
Indirectly, fiber might promote weight loss as it promotes satiety between meals, making you less likely to feel famished going into your next meal. However, be wary of the “let me fill up on fiber to eat less” mentality. This, along with filling up on high-fiber options to “dodge” cravings can easily result in a cycle of binging and thus, rebound weight gain. Remember, satisfaction is a very important part of your diet, along with making food choices, not food rules. Check out these articles to learn more about this:
The Bottom Line
It’s important to include fibrous foods throughout your day, however, don’t obsess. Most importantly, focus on a food first approach and aim for complex carbohydrates as part of your meals and snacks (learn more about these sources here!). Remember: it’s easy to obsess over the numbers, such as grams of fiber per day. If you’re doing this, you’re likely to fall into unsustainable (and even disordered) eating habits. Think about how your meals and snacks make you feel. If you feel energized after adding fibrous whole grain bread to your lunch, then go for it! If you’re feeling bloated after eating a salad, then hold off on the raw veggies (especially before dancing). With each eating opportunity, assess how you feel physically and mentally!
Article written with the help from student Abby Haynes. Expert reviewed by Rachel Fine.