For dancers, sustaining a healthy and supportive relationship with food is crucial not only for physical well-being but also for career longevity. The Healthy Dancer® encompasses a 6-step approach that does exactly this: guides dancers in building the behavioral changes needed to support their relationships with food and maintain a healthy body image.
But even for seasoned professionals, the challenge isn’t just to make behavioral changes, it’s to sustain them. Let’s uncover the most common reasons why dancers struggle to sustain behavioral change— especially concerning food and body image, and how to overcome them.
Barriers To Sustaining Behavioral Change
When dancers first reach out to me, motivation is high with a strong desire to ditch diet culture. At this moment, dancers are likely experiencing the negative consequences of restrictive dieting— injuries and burnout are just two examples. For others, the desire to ditch diet culture is driven by external pressure (such as that coming from social media and the influx of intuitive eating/non-diet rhetoric).
As time progresses, however, this initial enthusiasm often wanes and the challenge to consistently adhere to efforts in rejecting the dieting mentality grows. Habits deeply rooted in routine— especially for dancers who have dieted for years are difficult to break. In addition to this are three common reasons why dancers might experience a relapse in their journey:
#1: You’re holding on to sneaky food rules
Early in The Healthy Dancer®, we learn how to make peace with food. In doing so, we practice unconditional permission to eat all foods that leave us feeling supported— physically energized, and mentally satisfied. As discussed in this article, the goal is to strip away any conditions that you, or diet culture, have placed on food. The two most common conditions are the need to either “save up” for or “burn off” food.
The process of eating unconditionally doesn’t happen overnight. The longer you’ve experienced the dieting mentality, the more likely you’re holding tight to lingering conditions around food. Beliefs like “I can eat this, but only in moderation,” or, “I can eat these foods, but only on certain days or at certain times” are rooted in restriction, not permission. FYI: here’s what I think about “moderation.”
#2: You’re stuck in the “Honeymoon Phase”
Early in your journey, especially during the days of breaking food rules, you might recall an immeasurable sense of freedom around foods previously deemed “unhealthy,” “bad,” or “off limits.” A heightened reward response ensues— a direct result of your previous deprivation. More than ever, your cravings for these very foods feel insatiable. Even the research demonstrates that imposing restraints around eating drives cravings and ultimately, experiences like “over”-eating and binge eating. For dancers who struggle with the orthorexic identity, the honeymoon phase can even occur for foods considered more processed or less “clean.”
For most dancers, this experience surfaces two scary realities: the first is a radical acceptance of eating foods that have been deemed off-limits to dancers. The second is the potential to “over”-eat. Depending on how long you’ve restricted these foods, this phase in your journey can linger and any experiences of eating past a point of comfortable fullness can lead dancers back to restriction.
#3: You’re dance environment is overrun with toxicity
The relentless pursuit of a specific body ideal, often perpetuated by industry standards, is another common reason why dancers might be drawn back to harmful practices like extreme dieting and overtraining. If you’re dancing in an environment where body shaming and unhealthy habits prevail, or there is an undeniable emphasis on appearance (such as with type-casting), then you might be at a higher risk of hindering your ability to sustain The Healthy Dancer® mindset and values.
Overcoming The Obstacles: 3 Steps to Sustaining The Healthy Dancer®
There are a few simple facts to uncover as you move along your journey to becoming The Healthy Dancer®. The first is just that: it’s a journey, and one filled with inevitable ups and downs. There will be days when you feel more or less confident than others— especially when a comparative mindset imposes self-doubt on your food choices, body goals, or dancing capabilities. I encourage you to consider these ups and downs as trials and errors— those that help you build a body of evidence to learn what works and what doesn’t. To do this, explore the following as journaling prompts.
#1: Embrace The Journey
For many dancers, these times often involve moments when you’ve eaten past the point of fullness or turned to food during times of emotional distress. There are often two reasons for this: the first is biological and stems from periods of restriction. Explore how you’ve eaten in the last week or two— have you been able to eat several meals and snacks during the day? If you’re dancing more, are you getting in an extra snack? Or, is your busy schedule causing you to forget to fuel?
The second is psychological. Is there any restrictive thinking happening? Return to the process of identification. Can you acknowledge moments when a restrictive mindset surfaces? Are you labeling foods as “bad” or less “clean?” How might this trigger your dieting mentality?
To intervene, reevaluate whether you’re eating enough during the day. This is where working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is essential. Those with advanced certifications in working with eating disorders will be a plus. Explore the use of mindfulness and intent. Mindful eating can help with mealtime awareness, and acknowledging when you’re feeling full. Mindfulness also involves turning to other activities during those times of emotional distress (or boredom). Adult coloring books, knitting, and crafts are examples.
#2: Remember The Facts
With self-discovery comes self-awareness. Remind yourself of why you wanted to heal your relationship with food. Perhaps it was overwhelming food thoughts or feeling like you’re on the brink of burnout. In addition to this is the literature and what we know about restrictive eating habits:
- Nearly 98% of dieters regain their weight within a year of losing it.
- For those who keep the weight off, behaviors closely resemble those of an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any mental health disorders.
#3: Lean into Compassionate Curiosity
Keep an eye out for moments when the dieting mentality and unhelpful food thoughts sneak back in. These can be triggered for a multitude of reasons, most commonly from discussions around weight and weight loss. No matter where on the spectrum you are in healing your relationship with food, recognize the progress you’ve made thus far. Merely bringing more awareness to these thoughts is progress, especially in comparison to where you’ve been in the past (in denial about restrictive eating or without knowledge about restrictive eating).
Ideally, the goal is to stop relying on behaviors like calorie counting and “clean” eating even when unhelpful thoughts surface. If you’re relying on these behaviors less often, that is progress! In addition to this, we want to avoid ridiculing ourselves when we turn to behaviors like mindless eating and “over”-eating.
But I’m still struggling with my weight
Unfortunately, weight stigma and anti-fat bias saturate the dance industry. It is likely that when you were restricting your food intake, you maintained a weight that was too low for optimal health. If you’ve gained weight through healing your relationship with food, then there might be a need to rebuild body confidence in a body that currently, doesn’t feel comfortable. Explore ways in which you can gain comfort— often with the help of a mental health provider who can work with you to support the cognitive restructuring around these body ideals.