Help! I think I eat too much!”
Should dancers practice methods of portion control?
Fact: I don’t like the phrase “portion control.” It assumes that we need to enact an external set of rules over how much we eat and if no rules exist, then well, the flood gates open and we eat EVERYTHING. The societal connotation of “portion control” often comes alongside guilt and shame, usually following an episode of bingeing or eating past a comfortable fullness.
The desire to exhibit a degree of control over our food choices is one that can sound attractive to dancers. This is because many dancers feel comforted when in control. For dancers, much of their success can feel out of their immediate control. Think about: casting calls and auditions are left in the hands of directors while performance execution can even feel a bit hard to grasp. So in the context of food, dancers find it comforting to strive for some degree of control over a tool that will essentially impact their abilities. The fear of NOT being in control is often described as behaviors like overeating or binge eating.
This is why “portion control” is attractive to dancers. Within the usual framework of dance culture, discipline is encouraged and rewarded. So why is it different for food?
More often than not, the struggle of “portion control” has less to do with knowing how much to eat and more to do with the body’s response to a derivative mindset. Controlling your portions in attempts to manipulate your body is partaking in disordered eating behaviors. Being assigned an “amount” of food to eat (like, for example, a calorie count, point level, and/or macro count) doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll eat the “right” amount of food for our body. This is especially true because everybody’s needs vary substantially.
Striving for strict control over your food choices in attempt to manipulate your body is disordered eating .
And it’s actually the opposite. Striving to abide by an authoritarian allowance of how much to eat makes us vulnerable to that rebellious voice of, “oh well, time to throw in the towel!” And for dancers who struggle with an all-or-nothing mentality, serving sizes can translate into a dependency on using measuring utensils and food scales. In the context of a dancer’s diet, these habits are isolating and unsustainable.
Portion control for dancers: consider attunement
I never fully understood this concept until I had my son. It was incredible to experience how naturally intuitive he was as a baby: crying when in need of a bottle and stopping when he felt full. This concept (eating when hungry and stopping when full) seems so simple yet for some reason, is so difficult for adults! To be fair, babies don’t have the same experiences that we have around food. For lack of a better phrase, they don’t necessarily know what they’re missing. But as my son gets older and begins to experience a variety of delicious food, I continue to be in awe of his ability to honor fullness and satisfaction… no matter how delicious the ice cream is!
Through my son, I’ve seen first-hand that we can, no matter how delicious a food is, honor our fullness without the use of external “portion control” or serving sizes. In other words, we can self-regulate the amount of food our body needs to feel good mentally and physically. This, of course, comes alongside the privilege of food security. Knowing that food can and will be available at anytime means that we’re not in survival mode. Socioeconomic imbalances and food insecurity are, however, major problems in this world. Because of this, one should never feel shameful about eating past fullness. The first goal is always to make sure our basic human needs are met and that means fueling the body with what is accessible.
What does the research say?
Despite previous findings, a 2017 review of the scientific research shows us that chronic dieting affects food consumption. In other words, dieters are more susceptible to food-industry marketing and are known to eat more foods labeled “healthy” or “low calorie” (even if those labels are false!) In comparison, those who do not diet are more likely to rely on internal cues, such as fullness and satisfaction cues, than external cues, such as dictated portion sizes. Fun fact: the popular research used in the late 90s and early 2000s that suggested people eat more in response to larger portion sizes was later debunked and the preliminary researcher, Brian Wansink, was explained to have “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”
Restrictive eating and dieting elicit a false sense of food insecurity. We can therefore argue that “portion control” is a mechanism constructed by diet culture to keep us coming back for more: we fear “losing control” and therefore, we are made to feel dependent on these external food allowances.
This article will break down how to recognize, identify, and honor our innate fullness cues as a means of knowing how much is “right.” You’ll begin to understand how to respect your body by feeding it consistent meals and snacks that nourish, fuel, energize, AND satisfy.
4 steps for dancers to learn how much food is “enough”
#1: Eat Enough!
We cannot honor fullness until we’re actually eating enough food throughout the day. Dancers are especially prone to under-eating because of environmental pressures and high levels of physical activity. Check out this article to assess whether or not you’re eating enough.
In regards to back-of-the-package labels, “serving sizes” can be a helpful place to start. However, these servings are not always appropriate, and more often than not, super impractical. For example, “an ounce of chips” is hardly satisfying. Similarly, a “100-calorie snack pack” is never enough! In fact, the FDA makes it clear that servings sizes “are based on the amount of food people typically consume, rather than how much they should consume.” In other words, serving sizes are not meant to tell you what the “right” amount to eat is.
#2: Focus on Balance
This is especially true for snack-type foods like chips, pretzels, fruit, and popcorn, which can be less filling when eaten alone. We refer to this as staying power. Ask yourself: will this food keep me feeling full and satisfied until my next meal or snack? Try pairing food sources of carbs, protein, and fat. Implementing this kind of gentle nutrition will help you construct meals and snacks with more staying power.
#3: Aim For Mindful Eating
When possible, make your meals and snacks the focus of your attention. Save your screen time for afterward. Tune into your food; from its tastes and its textures to its aromas and its appearance. This will help you feel fullness as it approaches. Working on your “mindful muscle” prepares you for instances when serving sizes may not be clear… such as when dining at restaurants. Learn how to dictate your portions using mindful eating techniques that help to increase your attunement to feeling fullness and satisfaction.
#4: Practice Visualization
If you’re still a bit skeptical, then practice a few well-known visualizations to start the process. But remember: even these are arbitrary and can be impractical for an active dancer! A few examples include:
- One serving of meat, fish, poultry measures about the palm of your hand or a deck of cards
- One serving of nuts measures about a handful
- Once serving of seed or nut butter measures about the size of a golfball
- One serving of fresh fruit measures the size of a tennis ball
- Two servings of cooked vegetables measure about the size of your fist
How will you apply these tips? Share in the comments below!