For dancers, a healthy relationship with food is essential. However, when compared to the general population, dancers have a three times higher risk of suffering from an eating disorder. Restrictive “clean eating” food plans and nutrition misinformation are often the leading culprits that impede a dancer’s ability to successfully fuel for performance. As a dietitian for dancers, I’ve previously discussed the benefits of nutrition education; this article will provide you with the fundamentals to get started.
Your Fuel Needs as a Dancer
There are five fundamental values to consider when building your dancer fuel plan:
- Nutritional Adequacy (are you eating enough?)
- Macronutrient Balance
- Mealtime Consistency
- Food Variety
- Food Flexibility
These five values encompass The Healthy Dancer® Functional Fuel— a guided practice designed to optimize a dancer’s performance in a sustainable way.
Good nutrition for dancers starts with The Healthy Dancer® Functional Fuel
Understanding your nutritional needs as a dancer begins with identifying whether or not you’re fueling adequately. Dancers often feel that to do this, behaviors like calorie counting or “portion control” are the answer, but these behaviors perpetuate restrictive eating and drive dancers further from their abilities to truly harness body attunement. Rather, discovering nutritional adequacy requires the radical dismantling of mealtime fears, specifically around calories and certain foods or food groups. Here are three articles to get you started:
What foods should dancers eat?
Dancers need a diet that is balanced among nutrients— the macronutrients carbohydrates, fat, and protein, along with the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). A dancer’s fuel mix embodies a single meal or snack that includes sources of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrates are a preferred source of energy for the body, providing the necessary sugars used for metabolic and physical functioning. Carb-rich foods, particularly plant-based options like legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, veggies, and fruit are rich in fiber, which supports a steadier flow of energy that can be maintained for longer periods. To learn more about fiber and its role for dancers, click here.
The next addition to your dancer’s fuel mix is protein. Protein is made up of amino acids— the building blocks for anabolic growth. Protein helps to repair and rebuild torn muscles (a normal response from intense dancing). Protein-rich foods like dairy and dairy alternatives, eggs, legumes, beans, ancient grains, and pseudo-cereals (like quinoa) are examples.
The final macronutrient of a dancer’s fuel mix is fat. Adding fat to your meal enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also supports bone health, 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 known to be heart-healthy. Animal fats, like those found in butter, whole-milk dairy, cheese, meat, and eggs can help construct satisfying meals and should not be feared.
A Dancer’s Fuel Mix: Practical Applications
You’ll want to aim for this dancer’s fuel mix multiple times throughout your day— 3 meals and 2 snacks per day is a great starting point. If you’re struggling with diminished hunger cues, then mapping a flexible eating schedule can help support proactive fueling efforts. 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.
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 (learn more about carbohydrates here). Adding a handful of whole grain cereal or pretzels to a trail mix is just a quick example. 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 tangy vinaigrette. Fats from sources like avocadoes, nuts, and oils heal your body and reduce the natural inflammation experienced in dance. Flax, chia, nuts (especially walnuts), green leafy veggies, and fortified eggs are rich in omega-3 fats and tend to be more budget-friendly. Top your favorite yogurt with chopped nuts and sprinkle with ground flaxseeds and chia seeds. Spread mashed avocado on whole-grain bread and top with slices of egg. Click here to learn more about the role of fat in a dancer’s diet.
Food Variety and Flexibility
In addition to nutritional adequacy, balance, and consistency are the values of food variety and food flexibility. Your meal plan must allow for fluidity. For dancers, a supportive relationship with food incorporates nutrient-dense options, like nuts, fruit, and whole grains while also making infinite room for unapologetic enjoyments like fun foods! Loosening the reigns of mealtime rigidity is key and granting yourself full permission to enjoy all foods is the goal.
What foods should dancers avoid?
Unfortunately, there’s lots of nutrition misinformation circulating the dance world— telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat. Restrictions— whether on the amount of food you eat or the type of food lead us down an unsustainable road that’s met with guilt, shame, fear, and isolation. 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. 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.
Don’t fight cravings—embrace them. Dancers can learn how to decipher food preferences from food rules (here’s an article that teaches you how). The more we restrict our favorite foods, the more inclined we are to enter a binge- and restrict cycle. Be wary of “light” alternatives as these 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.
Dancers: access 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 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
The Healthy Dancer® embodies 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 discover 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.
Consider food preferences as a personal drive to eat. Food is culture. Food is fun. Food is social. Food is life. The Healthy Dancer® prioritizes a healthy relationship with food. A Dancer’s Complete Guide to Intuitive Eating is a good place to start. Dancers can utilize the principles of gentle nutrition in a non-obsessive way to build a proactive approach to fueling for performance. 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.
You can also dive deeper into these 5 fundamentals in The Healthy Dancer® Functional Fuel Challenge. This is a FREE opportunity that will run annually, every October. Click here to register.