Society does a fabulous job at polarizing foods into two different categories: the good (“healthy” options) and the bad (“unhealthy” options). Common foods that society deems “bad” or “unhealthy” often include sweets, sodas, highly processed foods, and convenience or packaged foods. Since these foods offer fewer nutrients when compared to other foods, they’re often seen as sources of “empty calories.”
For dancers, the desire to fuel for performance can make eating “empty calories” seem counterintuitive. This is because as artistic athletes, dancers strive to optimize their plates for adequate energy and muscle recovery. But when a dancer begins to stress about food and feels anxious when those nutrient-dense foods aren’t available, intentions to optimize performance can turn into unhealthy obsessions.
I’ve come to learn, however, that food does much more than fuel our physical performance. And while nutrient-dense foods are essential for an active dancer’s meal plan, it’s equally as important for dancers to make room for ALL foods, even those “less-nourishing” ones. Here’s why:
#1: Eating Foods You Love Is Joyous
Whether it’s feeling energized from a balanced salad or satisfied with a warm ginger snap cookie, enjoying ALL foods is an essential part of a balanced diet. Remember: we are allowed to eat food for the sake of happiness. These eating opportunities might not necessarily be to rebuild torn muscles or energize tired legs, but they’re fueling our soul. Healthy is more than just how many nutrients we can pack into one meal. A true “healthy” diet utilizes food to build a social connection and joyful experience. These connections and experiences are far from empty!
#2: No Single Food Will Destroy Your Goals
Repeat after me: (1) no single food will make or break my health and performance (2) no single food will cause weight gain AND (3) no single food will cause weight loss.
First, there’s a lot that goes into your abilities on stage. Concentration, technical advancement, and even bone health all factor into your strength and endurance. Next, in regards to your weight, there are lots of variables that impact it, including genetics, medical history, dieting history, and more. Shift your focus away from weight and rather on body trust. The more you listen to your body, the more you build trust with feeding it the foods it needs for optimal performance. If you’re confused about what it means to “listen,” then start with these cues.
#3: Stress, Guilt, & Anxiety are More Unhealthy Than “Empty Calories”
Our culture normalizes the idea of “clean eating.” Listen, it’s true that lesser-processed foods offer the body incredible amounts of bioavailable nutrients. I love these options because they’re high in naturally-occurring fibers and proteins: two nutrients that promote health, energy, and muscle recovery.
But here is what I don’t love: fear-mongering foods that might not be as “nutritionally-dense” and rather, might be more processed. This provokes shame, guilt, and fear: three ingredients that do not belong on any dancer’s plate. ALL foods, even those more processed ones, still provide your body with energy. That’s NOT a bad thing!
And what about intolerances? I commonly hear dancers talk about allergies to “white flour” and “regular sugar.” I would never discredit the potential for food intolerances or food allergies (more on this topic here) because it’s important to eat foods that help us to feel good physically. But if your intolerance flares only when you’re stressed or anxious about a particular food, then I’ll ask you to reassess. This stress-induced cortisol spike might be impacting how your gut digests your food.
So here’s the thing… I’m not saying that we should strive to eat a diet composed of 100% highly processed foods 24/7. That will likely not help you feel great physically. And for this reason, I encourage you to apply nutrition knowledge in a non-obsessive way (read more about this here). But if you strip away the fear, shame, and anxiety around those “empty-calorie” foods and instead allow them back into your meal plan when the desire strikes, then you might surprise yourself. Giving yourself permission to enjoy those options will equip you to do so mindfully and move on when satisfied (as opposed to “cleaning your plate” because you’ll “never allow yourself to eat them again.”)
Last note, many dancers struggle with limited time and financial access to nutrient-dense lesser-processed foods. How can we dismantle the stigmas of our industry if we’re spreading a very elitist and privileged message around our food choices? Plus, fast food establishments might be the only options available during touring seasons. Remember that fueling your body is most important, even if that means putting your goals of “nutrition density” aside for a bit. Dancer nutrition doesn’t just teach about nutrient optimization, it also works to remove the fear, anxiety, and shame around eating any and all foods.