There’s a misconception when it comes to intuitive eating for dancers; that it’s only about those commonly-deemed “indulgences” like cookies, donuts, fries, and cake without much regard for nutrient-dense foods. But as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I want you to learn how to fuel your body in a way that supports your health. And as a Certified Counselor of Intuitive Eating, I want you to do this in a way that supports the entirety of your wellbeing, including your emotional and mental wellbeing.
There is no single definition of health, and what is “healthy” for one dancer might not be the same “healthy” for another dancer. But dancers often struggle to find balance, especially as it relates to integrating the principles of intuitive eating with the principles of performance nutrition. Cravings are one such example, which creates instances of vulnerability to an all-or-nothing mindset around food. This article will dive into why dancers experience cravings, what are the different types of cravings, and how dancers can navigate them in a way that doesn’t derail their work both in the studio and at mealtimes.
Cravings: Why are dancers suceptible?
A craving encompasses a strong desire for food. The biological reason for cravings is simple: hormones. A surge in hunger-specific hormones like leptin and neuropeptide-Y increase cravings for foods higher in fat and carbs, respectively. These surges can result from a variety of reasons, some include:
- Restrictive dieting, which is common among dancers given the prevalence of food and body ideals in the industry.
- Lack of sleep (CW: weight stigmatizing language) which intensifies cravings for foods that provide easily-accessible energy like carbs. Busy schedules often leave dancers with less time for sleep.
Cravings get a bad rep in dancer diet culture, but truth is, they’re one way in which your body communicates its needs. Once we understand the reason behind a craving, we can remove the shame and guilt and instead make space to navigate them in a productive way. Of the three reasons provided above, two are within our control: dieting and sleep. I’ve previously discussed how to intervene on sleep habits, so for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the roles that food and dieting play on cravings.
Cravings: What do they mean?
Most often, cravings are harmless desires born from past experiences with food. Restrictive dieting, however, lays a foundation that exacerbates cravings to a point where they feel unmanageable. To manage cravings, it’s important to first identify where you’re at along your journey of building a healthy relationship with food. Consider the following scenarios; which relates most to you at this moment?
Scenario 1: You’re just starting out. Intuitive eating seems interesting and you’re fed up with the binge- and restrict- cycle.
At this point, your intent to heal from diet culture is there, but your priority might still be to use food as a tool to manipulate your body weight, shape, or size. Since your recent history involves restriction, whether it’s underestimating your daily calorie needs or following a “clean” eating regimen, then your cravings are a signal for your body’s need for replenishment.
Scenario 2: You’re familiar with intuitive eating, but you’re still holding on to the dieting mentality.
At this point, you’ve been following me on Instagram and maybe even worked alongside a nutritionist or health coach to build a fueling plan. You’re able to conceptualize the goal of alleviating food guilt and understand that emotional eating isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. But, you’re still experiencing instances of “over”-eating or eating in a way that doesn’t feel great, physically or mentally. Your cravings are likely the result of lingering food rules and food fears. It’s human nature to desire what you *think* you cannot have (ever hear the phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side?”
Cravings: How can dancers manage them?
It’s always important to honor cravings, but let’s break down how to do this without feeling vulnerable to that all-0r-nothing mindset.
First, eat an adequate amount of calories each day and consistently incorporate the three major macronutrients within your meals and snacks. Most notable are carbs and fat: the two macronutrients that provide the body with abundant and easily-accessible energy. These are also the macros commonly restricted by dancers and therefore, the ones needed to be prioritized within a dancer’s meals and snacks. Providing your body with adequate fuel throughout the day and considering nutrition basics like balance will enable you to honor cravings in a way that leaves you feeling confident. You’ll also want to consider what is accessible and feasible for you at this moment. Here are a few helpful resources to do that:
Next, consider how food makes you feel. Take a look back at instances when food might have left you feeling sluggish or physically unwell. Food neutrality, food flexibility, and unconditional permission are three tools that can help with your cravings. You might even be surprised when those cravings begin to shift from being only indulgent foods to foods those nutrient-dense options (yes, your body will eventually crave veggies and whole grains!)
“Help! My cravings are my downfall!”
If this sounds relatable, then consider these three questions:
- Am I using food as a tool to manipulate my body weight, shape, or size?
- Am I using food as a tool for performance?
- Am I using food as a tool to support my wellbeing?
Focus on the latter two. It’s encouraged that food is used as a tool to support how you feel. Examples in which a dancer can use food as a tool for performance include:
- Enhancing energy in class
- Improving digestive functioning
- Supporting strength goals
- Promoting alertness
- Reducing risk of injury
When fears of weight gain and/or goals of body composition change exist, food is prioritized as a tool to manipulate one’s body weight, shape, or size. This contributes to dancers getting stuck in the journey. As a result, body image support is encouraged alongside your work in rebuilding your relationship with food.
Many dancers want to alleviate feelings of food guilt and simultaneously know how to choose food that enables them to feel energized and strong. These goals can and should coexist. Remember: caring about your food choices is great, but micromanaging them can lead to unsustainable behaviors.
In The Healthy Dancer community, we consider these goals through a unique lens. We focus on unlearning the external cues of the dieting mentality. We learn how to replace this with internal cues of body attunement in order to rebuild trust with our hunger, fullness, and feelings of satisfaction. Once we reconnect to these internal communications, we do the work of challenging food fears in order to heal our relationship with food. From there we dive deeper into both gentle nutrition and performance nutrition, two tools that can further enhance our well-being and performance. These make up the fourth and fifth core values of The Healthy Dancer framework and I offer an entire course on the topics (specifically for dancers).