Should dancers track what they eat?
Dancers work with me to build a lifestyle that encompasses a non-restrictive approach to eating. Throughout the process, we utilize the principles of Intuitive Eating to rebuild body attunement and self-trust. For those unfamiliar, a large part of learning how to eat intuitively involves learning how to identify feelings of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.
But there’s a misconception about what it means to “eat intuitively.” To those unfamiliar, it can sound like an unstructured lifestyle that only involves making room for foods otherwise deemed “indulgent” or “unhealthy.” And while giving yourself permission to eat a brownie sundae or any of the foods that you previously restricted or deemed “bad” is a major step in the right direction, it’s not the full picture. There is more to building a supportive relationship with food than just eating previously deemed “bad” foods.
Learning how to eat intuitively teaches us about body attunement and honoring our hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues. It enables us to assess how various foods make us feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. It also allows us to make space for self-care. Side note: I’m not referring to the kind of self-care that involves getting a massage or booking a spa day. Those are luxuries. I’m referring to the basic necessity of life: eating. Busy schedules and high levels of physical activity (like dancing) can prevent us from fueling sufficiently throughout the day. Meal planning is essential to ensure that dancers are fueling their bodies adequately.
Meal Planning versus Food Journaling
First, let’s clarify the differences between these two tools. Meal planning involves setting time aside to plan your day’s or week’s meals and snacks. For some, planning a week’s meals and snacks helps to make sure certain foods and ingredients are on hand. This helps with budgeting both time and money. Food journaling, on the other hand, involves tracking what, when, and how much we eat throughout the day. Food journals often include subcategories like calories, macros, points, emotional mood states, and physical somatic experiences, just to name a few.
When Is Meal Planning Helpful for Dancers?
Since dancers are at risk for disordered eating habits, those with a history of restrictive eating may benefit from meal planning as a way to provide external structure when interoceptive awareness (AKA innate hunger/fullness cues) is diminished. Think of it like a cast that is placed on a broken arm: meal planning offers temporary support to ensure that the body is adequately nourished while simultaneously allowing for internal healing. Years (even months!) of restrictive eating can damage our innate ability to feel and listen to hunger and fullness cues.
As mentioned earlier, busy schedules and high levels of physical activity can also result in intentional undereating. Creating a flexible daily meal plan assures that we are meeting our body’s primitive needs for nourishment while working to repair our instinctual clock. Those with ADHD and Autism might also struggle with interoceptive awareness and therefore benefit from meal planning as a way to ensure the body is adequately nourished.
…meal planning offers temporary support to ensure that the body is adequately nourished while simultaneously allowing for internal healing.
When Is Food Journaling Helpful for Dancers?
Journaling eating experiences and how they impact our emotional and mental well-being can serve as a helpful tool for dancers looking to heal their relationships with food. Utilizing a temporary food journal might be helpful throughout the process of intuitive exploration. A Food & Mood Journal is one such example that helps dancers identify hunger and fullness cues, along with helping to unravel the origins of why we might turn to food as a coping mechanism (something I chat about here).
But remember, diet culture is a slippery slope and if you haven’t yet rejected the dieting mentality, then you could risk utilizing such a tool in a negative way. A food & mood journal is not meant to track calories or macros. The goal is also not meant to ONLY eat when hungry and stop when full. Rather, it’s meant as a tool for exploration and compassionate curiosity.
When Is Food Journaling Problematic for Dancers?
Tracking what and how much we eat throughout the day is a behavior rooted in diet culture. For most, the need to track or journal their food intake often ties in with the goal of staying under a certain calorie limit and avoiding certain foods or nutrients. This is very much in contrast with eating intuitively, which honors body attunement to build self-trust around providing our body with enough food throughout the day. Food journaling (and even meal planning) can easily provoke anxiety if perfectionistic tendencies turn a flexible plan into a rigid set of rules.
How Can Dancers Utilize Food Journaling In a Positive Way?
Early on in the process of healing your relationship with food, food journaling can function to help you reconnect to your innate feelings of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Basically, you’ll re-learn the types and amounts of food that help you feel satisfied. We can also utilize food journaling to notice how foods make us feel and whether or not certain foods cause gastrointestinal discomfort. But, this type of journaling should only be performed with the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Furthermore, this practice should only be considered in those who do NOT struggle with disordered eating behaviors. Check out this article to learn more about this topic.
Remember: eliminating any one type of food or food group (even for the sake of so-called “digestive comfort”) can be detrimental to a dancer who is either on the road to recovery from an eating disorder or on the journey towards healing their relationship with food. Ask yourself: is your focus on adding or taking away food? If the goal is to ensure that you are eating enough food, then yes- it’s a helpful tool. But if your goal is to avoid any type of food group or macronutrient, or to limit the overall amount you’re eating in a day, then you’ll need to reassess ASAP. A major sign of disordered eating is the feeling of overwhelming scrutiny upon your daily food choices.
If you are utilizing a food journal, then set your goal to eventually regain your innate ability to fuel adequately. Whether it’s to navigate busy days or to begin a journey towards non-restrictive eating, consider these three tips before adding a meal plan to your toolbox:
- Remember Flexibility
- Consider Variety
- Plan for Emergencies
For more information about meal planning, along with a detailed list of tips, read this article.