From “clean eating” to keto, diet trends and restrictive food regimens impede a dancer’s ability to fuel for performance. I previously discussed the importance of nutrition for dancers. If you’re a dancer, this article will help you to reassess your goals when it comes to your meal plan. Rebuilding a healthy relationship around food is essential to your long-term performance. This article will provide you with the fundamentals of good nutrition for dancers.
Fueling the dancer
To perform optimally, dancers need a diet that is balanced among nutrients. This includes the macronutrients carbohydrate, fat, and protein, along with the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and fluids. A macronutrient mix is a single meal or snack that includes sources of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Aim for this mix at multiple times throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks).
What is good nutrition for dancers?
It starts with a balanced plate. Each macronutrient has a specific role in the body. Carbohydrates (also known as carbs) provide the necessary sugars that your body needs for energy. Carbohydrates are a dancer’s most efficient source of energy. Various foods can act as either complex carbs or simple carbs. Complex carbs are found in many plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, veggies, and fruit. Complex carbs are high in fiber, which helps to slow digestion and subsequent absorption of sugars. This will give your body a steady flow of energy throughout long days.
The next addition to your balanced plate is protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, which the body uses as building blocks for metabolic growth. Protein helps to repair and rebuild torn muscles. Example sources include dairy products, eggs, legumes, beans, ancient grains (like farro), and pseudo-cereals (like quinoa). For plant-based dancers, focus on a variety of different protein sources to ensure that you’re obtaining all essential amino acids. Click here to learn more about the importance of variety.
The last macronutrient for your balanced plate is fat. Adding fat to your meal enhances vitamin absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also promotes hormonal functioning and keeps you feeling satisfied. Unsaturated fats like nuts, nut butter, seeds, olive oil, canola oil, olives, avocados, and fatty fish are anti-inflammatory. Animal fats, like those found in butter, whole-milk dairy, cheese, meat, and eggs can help construct satisfying meals and should not be feared despite common food myths surrounding these sources.
In summary? Don’t fear carbs—they fuel your movement. Fats from sources like avocadoes, nuts, and oils heal your body and reduce the natural inflammation experienced in dance. Here are additional resources that dive into each of these nutrients for dancers:
- What are healthy carbohydrates for dancers? (Action tip: It’s recommended that carbohydrates make up at least 55-60% of a dancer’s diet with up to 65% for more intense training schedules.)
- Should dancers eat foods high in fat? (Action tip: Flax, chia, nuts (especially walnuts), green leafy veggies, and fortified eggs are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and tend to be more budget-friendly).
- A dancer’s complete guide to Intuitive Eating.
What foods should dancers avoid?
Restrictions, whether they are on the amount of food or on the type of food can damage a dancer’s biological and psychological well-being. Eating a low-calorie diet compromises a dancer’s energy availability and may lead to inadequate intake of important micronutrients like calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, zinc, iron, and vitamin K.
A calorie deficit results when a dancer eats too few calories to sustain their physical energy needs. A dancer’s energy needs include the calories burned during their activity and the calories required for basic metabolic functioning. To learn more about your calorie needs as a dancer, read this article.
Prolonged calorie deficits result in low energy availability and increase a dancer’s risk of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (or RES-S). RED-S encompasses the hormonal imbalances that can sacrifice physical strength, bone health, and even emotional well-being. To learn more about Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport among dancers, read this article. Clean eating lifestyles are an example of restrictive diets often disguised as “healthy” eating plans. Check out some thoughts I gave Dance Spirit Magazine about clean eating for dancers. Here are additional resources that help to debunk the truth behind clean eating diet plans for dancers:
- Clean Eating Diet Plans for Dancers
- Reading The Nutrition Facts Labels
- The Truth About Processed Foods
What foods should dancers eat?
Food is culture. Food is fun. Food is social. Food is life. Don’t fight cravings—embrace them! For dancers, a supportive relationship with food incorporates nutrient-dense options, like nuts, fruit, and whole grains while also making infinite room for unapologetic enjoyment, like cookies, cake, burgers, fries, and other fun foods! Loosening the reigns of rigidity around food choices is key and granting yourself full permission to enjoy all foods is the goal. To flourish on stage, it’s encouraged that dancers can prioritize a healthy relationship with food. Here are five good and effortless nutrition strategies every dancer needs to know.
5 Effortless nutrition strategies every dancer needs to know
1. Build a supportive meal plan with The Healthy Dancer® Functional Focus
For dancers, there are five fundamental values to consider when building your fuel plan:
- Adequacy (are you eating enough?)
- Balance (more on this below)
- Food Flexibility
Dancers can utilize the principles of gentle nutrition in a non-obsessive way to build a proactive approach to fueling for performance.
2. Find Structure, But with Fluidity
Dancers thrive with structure. Map out a flexible schedule that incorporates meals and snacks throughout your day. This is especially important since hunger cues can naturally diminish during a busy dancer’s day (read more about this here). To best sustain energy levels, avoid time gaps longer than 3-4 hours. Most importantly, your meal plan must allow for fluidity.
3. Make Choices, Not Rules
In regards to food, there’s lots of info out there telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. Whether it’s avoiding a specific food or food group, not eating after a certain time, or following a specific diet, rules lead us down an unsustainable road that’s met with guilt, shame, fear, and isolation.
Consider food preferences as a personal drive to eat. Dancers can learn how to decipher food preferences from food rules (here’s an article that teaches you how). If the privilege presents itself, then honor cravings when feasible. The more we restrict our favorite foods, the more inclined we are to enter a binge- and restrict cycle. Caution “light” and “healthy” alternatives, which may leave you unsatisfied. Cauliflower pizza is trendy, but if you’re truly craving pizza, enjoy the real deal. You’ll feel more satisfied in the long run. Removing the moral hierarchy behind your food choices is critical, but can be hard. Here is an article that teaches dancers how to utilize food neutrality throughout their meal and snack choices.
4. Embrace personalization
One of the biggest parts of The Healthy Dancer® program is building a personalized nutrition plan that supports YOUR goals and YOUR needs. Considering your likes, dislikes, and food preferences, we work together to construct balanced options that are realistic for your schedule. Throughout this work, you will begin to identify how food makes you feel. For example, you’ll begin to assess your energy levels in a class. You’ll become attuned to the various systems of your body including your hormone health and digestive health.
5. Get nutrition advice from qualified sources
Anyone can consider themselves an “expert” in nutrition. However, not all “experts” are licensed to provide adequate nutrition information. This is especially true for a population highly vulnerable to the development of disordered eating behaviors. Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are a dancer’s ideal source for nutrition information. Similar to the rigorous training required of a dancer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionists must complete over five years of clinical training in medical nutrition therapy and nutrition research. This unique background enables dietitians to accurately translate scientific jargon into accessible information.
Because dietitians must maintain professional licensure, they are required to complete continuing education throughout their professional practice. Since nutrition is an evolving science, this continued education ensures that dietitians remain up-to-date on nutrition research. Such training sets dietitians apart from “nutritionists” and “certified holistic health coaches.” Be wary: if you are instructed to count calories, track macros, and keep concise meal logs, then you’ll want to reassess and consider working with a dietitian for dancers.
Nutrition for Dancers Starts Now
Now that you’re ready to support good dancer nutrition practices, check out a few of my favorite balanced snacks:
- Top your favorite yogurt with chopped nuts (I love almonds!) and sprinkle with ground flaxseeds and chia seeds. Drizzle some honey and enjoy!
- Spread mashed avocado on whole-grain bread and top with slices of a soft-boiled egg. Not into the egg? Sprinkle hemp seeds for a protein boost.
- Create a grain bowl using wild rice or cooked quinoa as your base. Mix in veggies of your liking and top with grilled chicken. Dress with a simple vinaigrette.
Looking for more tips about how a dancer can build a healthy diet? I discussed a few ideas with Dance Magazine. And for the dancer well into their journey of healing their relationships with food and ready to sharpen their skills in nutrition for a successful dance career, sign up for Nourish The Healthy Dancer®. This is a series of self-study courses designed to support the sustainable lifestyle and ongoing journey of The Healthy Dancer®. Available options include:
- Nutrition Without Obsession (Gentle Nutrition) and Performance Nutrition. Learn more here.
- Reclaim Emotional Eating. Learn more here.
- Build Body Confidence through appreciation, neutrality, and respect Learn more here.