Dancers face unique nutritional challenges because of rigorous training schedules; combined with undeniable body ideals that unfortunately saturate the industry. The need to consume adequate amounts of food to support strength and endurance is not only challenged by busy schedules but also, by misinformation from diet culture. This article will discuss the most common nutritional concerns dancers face, and how both individuals and their clinicians can help to navigate them.
#1: Appetite Dysregulation
Many obstacles impede a dancer’s ability to both feel and honor appetite cues. Forgetting to eat is common with busy schedules. Studio food restrictions can make meals and snacks inaccessible for long periods of a dancer’s day. Heightened emotions like stress and anxiety can cause some dancers to lose their appetites, especially during audition and performance seasons. All of these instances drive appetite dysregulation, causing dancers to shift between extremes of feeling no hunger to feeling extreme hunger.
I’ve previously discussed the hunger- and fullness- scale and how dancers can utilize this tool for reconnecting to their intuitive hunger and fullness cues. But honoring practical hunger will also be critical. Practical hunger is one of the five types of hunger we experience. It involves eating despite the presence of physical hunger cues and is most helpful when obstacles stand in the way of consistent fueling. Crafting a flexible meal plan can help in this process and keep your appetite within a steady range.
#2: Vulnerability to Wellness Trends
When compared to the general population, dancers are three times more likely to develop a clinical eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by weight loss, commonly resulting from a calorie deficit. However, many dancers feel that eating too few calories is far from their issue.
Feeling like you’re eating “too much,” regularly “over”-eating, and/or consistently turning to food during times of heightened emotional triggers is common. And because diet culture sets the bar low for what we imagine to be an appropriate amount of food to eat, dancers are continuously made to believe that food should be precisely portioned and consumed “in moderation.”
But the underlying concern? Restriction. Food restriction doesn’t only encompass the act of eating too few calories in a day. It can also involve an anticipated restriction (like “eating in moderation”) or the desire to control your food intake (with “willpower”). These tools drive you further from your intuitive ability to listen and honor hunger and fullness cues and are often the basis of misinformation provided to dancers from individuals offering nutrition advice without solid credibility. Where you get your nutrition advice from matters. You’ll want to skip the “wellness” trap (read more about it here) that will likely leave you disconnected from your true nutritional needs.
#3: Diet and The Risk of Injury
A dancer’s risk of injury is high when nutritional needs are not met through diet. Building strong bones is incredibly important for dancers and diet can play a major role. Eating enough and shifting from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of allowance lay the groundwork. From there, learning how to incorporate nutrient-dense choices (but in a non-obsessive way) is key. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates like whole grains, calcium, and vitamin D like dairy and fortified dairy-free alternatives are examples. Eating food sources rich in fat, particularly omega-3’s can be supportive in muscle recovery. For complete guides on how dancers can reduce their risk of injury, check out these posts:
- How many calories “should” I eat?
- Building Strong Bones
- Why fat is way more important than we think.
Dancers remain vulnerable to specific nutritional concerns that can risk the sustainability of their careers. Learning about the fundamentals of dancer nutrition is incredibly important and a topic I’m proud to share both in my own work in The Healthy Dancer community (join me here) and in my work with Dance Masterclass (click here to take advantage of this amazing platform).
10+ Dancer Nutrition Mistakes to Avoid ASAP!
- Not eating enough
- Obsessing over ingredients
- Eating too few carbs
- Tracking calories
- Skipping sources rich in fat in your meals and snacks
- Only prioritizing protein
- Spending more time meal planning, and less time dancing
- Stressing over your meals
- Avoiding your favorite foods (ie. dessert)
- Accessing nutrition advice from those not qualified