Dancers have long been counting calories in attempts to gain a sense of comfort in micromanaging the amount they’re eating. So much in a dancer’s life feels out of immediate control—the success of an audition, the reward of landing a role, the hopes of snagging a spot in a company. Striving for behaviors (like calorie counting) offers an outlet for dancers to gain a sense of predictability and structure.
But the pitfalls of restrained eating are vast, and unlike what is promised, these habits fail to support long-term weight, health, and performance goals. In this article, we’ll uncover the reasons why dancers should steer clear of counting their calories, and the five steps to get there.
What’s so bad about calorie counting?
As a behavior, calorie counting often starts benign— dancer diet culture is notorious for normalizing this as a method to manipulate a dancer’s weight, shape, and size in hopes to acheive performance goals. Dancers who turn to calorie counting might think that they’re doing something “right,” especially when immediate gratification (such as an initial weight loss) is experienced.
But with popular diets recommending calorie targets that are much too low for even the inactive non-dancer, counting calories can be a gateway into more severe disordered eating. In fact, one out of four “normal dieters” will progress to a clinical eating disorder. This is exacerbated in the dance world with unfortunate body ideals leading most to grossly underestimate their baseline calorie needs.
At the very least, counting calories can quickly become an obsession that takes away from the vast experiences of life. Here’s what gets lost when dancers begin calorie counting:
- The joy of food.
- The mental space to focus on dance.
- Psychological well-being
- The ability to trust oneself around food (fears of “over”-eating are common)
- A sense of regular hunger cues throughout the day.
- The ability to self-regulate at mealtimes (an overall lack of feeling and honoring fullness)
- The negative implications of calorie deficits, including relative energy deficiency in sport.
5 actionable steps to stop counting calories
Dancers should consider shifting their focus away from counting calories for a variety of reasons, including those mentioned above. Merely fixating on calorie counting can lead to inadequate nourishment, leaving dancers feeling fatigued and at risk for both injury and burnout.
The logistics of quitting can feel impossible, especially for dancers who might not yet be ready to fully embrace intuitive eating (you’ll need to consult with a licensed dietitian if you’re concerned about the potential for not yet being ready). Nonetheless, utilize these five steps to start the shift.
#1: Start proactively
This one’s straightforward. If you’re using a tracking app or website, then you’ll want to delete it. If your watch is your calorie counter, then toggle off the setting. The
accuracy of these devices is largely debated, and ultimately, won’t provide you with the knowledge needed to determine how much energy your body needs to function optimally.
Not ready for such a change? Try moving your app to another screen (to make it slightly less accessible) and/or swapping your app with one that is more supportive. Apps like Mesmerize, ThinkUp, and even Wordle can offer alternative clickbait for when the urge to track feels strong.
#2: Be patient
Stopping the mental calorie ticker isn’t about if, it’s about when. The time and effort that it takes you to stop counting calories will largely depend on how long you’ve been doing it. If you’ve become fully reliant on extrinsic calorie goals to fuel your body, it’s likely that you’ve lost your ability to sense, trust, and honor intuitive cues of hunger and fullness (at least before they become extreme). Before you can re-learn how to support energy balance, you’ll need to work on unlearning the misconceptions. Credible resources are available, along with the support of a licensed professional like a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Here are a few addiitonal resources for understanding hunger and fullness.
- Understanding hunger and fullness cues
- Dealing with a diminished appetite
- Using practical hunger as a tool to regain an appetite
#3: Utilize compassionate self-discovery
For this step, recognize the power of journaling. When I work with dancers in The Healthy Dancer®, I provide them with oppurtunities for guided reflections. Throughout this work, we swap judgement with compassionate curiosity— recognizing that many behaviors like calorie counting are learned. At some point, you picked up the knowledge (thanks to diet culture) and may have been told that it would help to support your goals. Ultimately, you realized that calorie counting is more of a hindrance than a help. Reflect upon this without judgment.
Next consider the pros and cons of calorie counting. What might be the benefits? Is it the structure? The [fleeting] feeling of comfort? Perhaps it’s the hope of experiencing less weight stigma in the studio. As for the cons of calorie counting, what might you be missing out? Avoiding social situations in fear of exceeding a predetermined calorie limit means missing out on the potential to build memories and experiences. What are the risks involved? Injury and burnout can lead you further from achieving your dance goals.
As you work to identify and dismantle the behavior of calorie counting, it’s time to reframe the unsupportive thoughts that might continue to nudge you into counting. Oftentimes, these thoughts involve one of the biggest fears that dancers face when not counting calories: weight gain. Uncovering this fear is more than important, it’s necessary. It is true that everyone’s body responds differently to adequate nourishment. Simply put, when your fueling your body with enough food throughout the day, you’re allowing it to live at a weight that is genetically suited for you. Here’s an article that dives into why dancers should reconsider weight monitoring.
The anxiety over not knowing how your body will respond to intuitive eating can resurface fears and anxiety. Affirmations are one way to help, along with consulting a licensed mental health therapist can with this work.
#5: Embrace intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is fundamental to The Healthy Dancer®— dancers learn how to not just dismantle diet culture, but also make peace with food and learn how to utilize nutrition information without obsessing over it. This involves a deep understanding of honoring your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues while enjoying all types of food without guilt, stress, or mealtime anxiety. Here’s an article to learn more about implementing an intuitive approach to your meal and snack times. When accessible, mindful eating techniques can help you to tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, enabling you to eat until you feel satisfied rather than relying on external calorie limits.
Breaking free from the relentless cycle of calorie counting is liberating and allows you to develop a more sustainable approach to nutrition. By dismantling the urge to count, cultivating body awareness, and embracing The Healthy Dancer®, you can break the chains of calorie counting for good. Remember, nourishing your body doesn’t only have to serve the purpose of being functional. In fact, this is the very mindset that often turns food into a math equation. Rather, food can serve many purposes in life— comfort, joy, pleasure, and connection, just to name a few.