From pre-performance snacks to post-performance recovery, nutrition education is essential to a dancer’s training. But as I’ve discussed previously, dancers must juggle aspects of performance nutrition and meal planning, both of which can hover the realms of diet culture, with the goal of avoiding restrictive eating habits. To balance the importance of performance nutrition with the fundamentals of a non-diet lifestyle, we must recognize the tenth principle of intuitive eating: “gentle nutrition.”
Gentle nutrition is all about making food choices that support your mind-body connection. It enables you to make choices that help you feel good physically, fuel you energetically, and satisfy you mentally. It encompasses the idea of eating a nourishing salad for lunch and adding the dressing guilt-free. It also involves eating the chocolate chip cookie because you want it and stopping when feeling full because you’re satisfied.
Gentle nutrition allows us to apply the fundamentals of nutrition science in a non-obsessive way. Though we aim to honor what our body needs at any given time, we can learn how to use some external cues, like a flexible meal plan or the nutrition facts label, in a way that is helpful and not restraining.
First things first…
For some, nutrition science isn’t always the initial focus when building a healthy lifestyle. If you’re stuck following restrictive food rules or if you feel stressed and anxious about ALWAYS choosing the “right” foods, then relying on an external cue like the nutrition facts label might do more harm than good. Ask yourself: “do I feel anxious or guilty when eating foods that have been deemed less nutritious?” Remember that choosing a food that is “less nutritious” doesn’t mean you’re doing anything bad or wrong… especially if you’re satisfying a craving or in a situation with limited options.
Before focusing on the back-of-the-package labels, you’ll want to first break free from food rules. Building a healthy relationship with food will give you the confidence to make choices from a place of empowerment, not restriction. From there, you can apply nutrition information to your choices in a way that is positive and stress-free.
Since we’re focusing on the nutrition facts label right now, I’d like to first decipher if it’s a good time for you to utilize the information:
Use The Label If…
- You want to make informed food choices
- You have food allergies
- You have a healthy, non-restrictive relationship with food
- The information doesn’t stress you out or make you feel anxious!
Skip The Label If…
- The info is stressing you out.
- You’re looking for “permission” surrounding unrealistic goals.
- You’re using the info to categorize food as “good” vs. “bad”
- You’re attempting to follow strict diet rules around your food choices
Applying Nutrition Science… Gently
For those of you ready, we can use the fundamentals of nutrition science to make informed decisions that support our physical and mental performance. How do we do this? First, you’ll want to ask yourself “what will make my body feel best at this moment?” and “what will I enjoy?” Then you’ll have to consider your day and schedule. Are you traveling or commuting? If so, convenience will factor into your choice. Contrary to this, do you have time to cook a meal at home? Try not to base your decision around what diet culture tells you is “good” or “healthiest.” This might not be what works for your body at that moment in time. Here are a few additional examples of using gentle nutrition when making informed decisions around food:
- Does adding a scoop of protein powder to your AM oatmeal keep you feeling fuller for an intense morning? If yes, then add it!
- Does adding whole-grain bread to your lunch prevent a 3 PM energy crash? It’s higher in fiber and thus more likely to sustain your energy.
- Does the added dose of chia and flax to your smoothie keep your bowels moving? I bet it does!
- Since drinking water throughout the day keeps you alert, then keeping a water bottle on hand is not be a bad idea!
- Purchasing a protein-packed pancake mix might help to keep you feeling fuller throughout the morning.
- Swapping store-bought jelly with a homemade jam might help you avoid an over-powering level of sweetness in your meal. I’m all for that!
Food Labels: Point(e)s To Consider
In short: forget about the numbers. Looking at the ingredients in a packaged food can tell you a lot about the nutrient density of that food. Packages listing whole foods (for example, fruits & veggies, whole grains like oats, nuts, & seeds) will often offer a wide array of nutrients like heart-healthy fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Sources of added sugar (most often listed with words like “– syrup,” “–sugar,” “–concentrate,” or “–juice”) will usually indicate a food that is more processed. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these options, you’ll want to also make room in your day for lesser processed options. Since ingredients are listed in order of abundance, aim for labels with little added sugar or added sugars that are listed closer to the end of the list. Of note, sugar from whole fruits and milk is not considered added sugar. We talk more about the label in my program, The Healthy Dancer. If you’re looking to dive into- consider signing up!
Building Upon a Fluid Structure
Flexibility is an integral part of gentle nutrition. Once we place rigidity on what we eat or on how we eat throughout the day, then we move away from fueling our body intuitively. Let’s say for example you’re planning a snack for an upcoming rehearsal. Referencing the nutrition facts label to decipher a snack that is higher in protein and fiber, both known to sustain a dancer’s energy levels, would be a great idea. However, avoiding a snack because the only available option contains an ingredient of which society deems unhealthy is extreme and narrow-minded.
Looking At The Big Picture
Realize that the nutrition facts label should not be the ONLY reason behind your food choices. Overall, habits and patterns (even those outside of nutrition like exercise, sleep, and alcohol intake) are greater indicators of overall health. Yes, we have research to show us that certain foods and nutrients promote various performance benefits like muscle building. But take a step back to consider how this information supports your relationship with food. As long as you are choosing foods that satisfy you in addition to fuel you, then you’re making the best choice for your body. Remember: no one food or meal determines your health and/or derails your performance goals.