A dancer recently reached out inquiring about this trendy topic. To her, intermittent fasting didn’t seem like a diet. Technically, she’d be allowed to eat whatever she wanted. There’s a caveat though.
She’d only be allowed to eat during a specific “feeding time.”
If you’ve ever considered jumping head first into this trend, let’s review the facts. Together, we’ll assess whether intermittent fasting is right for you and your dance performance.
What Is It?
Intermittent Fasting is a plan that involves long stretches of time without eating. There are several different protocols. The most common is a “16:8” protocol, which involves not eating for 16 hours over a single day’s 24-hour period. In other words, one only eats during the 8-hour “allowed” period. More extreme protocols, such as the 5:2 plan, involve eating a standard amount of food for 5 days of the week and restricting the other 2 days to only 25% of one’s total daily calorie needs.
What’s The Point(e)?
Research shows the potential for improvements in cognitive (brain) functioning and increased energy. Since both mental clarity and increased energy are especially attractive for dancers, it’s plausible to consider Intermittent Fasting. The problem, however, is that these improvements are reported and not proven. Evidence on Intermittent Fasting is limited to small sample sizes and no long term follow up. In other words, researchers cannot tell you whether or not these benefits will actually happen. Furthermore, no research to date supports the use of Intermittent Fasting for dancers or athletes.
…I’m Ready to Try It!
Intermittent fasting is one of the most controversial topics because technically, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re restricting calories enough to be in a calorie deficit. If you’re meeting your total nutrition needs during the “allowed” hours, then you can technically fuel your body sufficiently. There are, however, several issues that I’d like you to consider…
#1: It’s not practical for a physically active dancer
The body has two main sites for energy storage: glycogen and fat. When it comes to physical movement, the body prefers to burn glycogen because when compared to fat, glycogen is a more efficient fuel source. In other words, it’s easier for the body to burn glycogen. Therefore, it offers quick energy during times when quick movement is required (think petite allegro). Utilizing glycogen also allows the body to save fat for processes like hormone production, vitamin transport, vitamin absorption, and even bone development.
Unlike fat, glycogen depletes rapidly. In fact, you can deplete your body’s glycogen over the course of 1 dance class. As a result, it’s critical to replenish your body’s glycogen throughout the day. If one is fasting too close to or during times of dancing, then glycogen will be nonexistent. The result? Low energy and poor performance.
#2: The Cost of Restrictions
Restrictive dieting doesn’t only involve reduced calorie intake. It also involves the placement of rigid rules around one’s eating habits. The moment we create a food rule as a means to control an otherwise biologically intuitive process (like eating for energy balance), we risk psychological repercussions. Obsessive thoughts about food and anxiety over meal planning are two examples. Simply put: when food is off-limits, even if only for a temporary period, we crave it more.
Let’s take a step back and realize that naturally, we all “intermittently fast.” It’s called sleeping. But if the aura of the trend still has you convinced, then consider your nighttime ZzZz an intermittent fast (or, in fancy terms, a nocturnal circadian rhythm fast). Just beware: Early workouts and late-night performances will benefit from a sufficient fuel supply. This is even more of a reason to steer clear from those food rules!
And P.S.- If you find yourself wanting to use intermittent fasting as a means to halt late-night grazing, then read this article to better tackle the behavior.