For dancers, a “healthy diet” is often a product of diet culture. Dancers are usually encouraged to partake in restrictive eating habits as a means to prioritize “health” and support (often unattainable) body standards. This puts dancers at high risk for the development of eating disorders and disordered eating, both of which evoke a problematic relationship with food.
As a dancer, I’ve been there. Years of obsessing over how to find “perfection” with both my plate and my body led to years of disappointment and ultimately, burnout. Academic training to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for dancers, along with a major perspective shift, eventually led me to a new definition of what it means to be The Healthy Dancer®: adapting a lifestyle that supports our tools (including our minds and bodies) while maintaining the joy in both food and life.
The Obstacles of Intuitive Eating for Dancers
As an intuitive eating dietitian for dancers, I’ve previously discussed how dancers can utilize this sustainable approach to support their needs. But daily reminders about what’s “healthy” versus what’s “unhealthy” and what’s “bad” versus what’s “good” (in regard to health and performance) make it tough to move past practices like “clean” eating and restrictive dieting. In fact, relearning how to eat intuitively (yes, relearning because we’re all born as intuitive eaters) isn’t so intuitive for most dancers. Here are a few additional reasons why:
- Dancers are prone to perfectionism, increasing their vulnerability to orthorexic tendencies. Here’s an article that dives into the dangers of clean eating for dancers.
- Dancers are over-exposed to misinformation about food and body, even if from well-meaning teachers and directors.
- High levels of physical activity can biologically blunt hunger cues.
- Busy schedules often shift a dancer’s focus away from their fueling needs.
- Unrealistic body ideals leave dancers to mistakenly desire control over food as a means to control body weight and performance.
For dancers, intuitive eating is anything but intuitive. It takes time, energy, and work to unlearn the messages of diet culture. Only then can we relearn how to support our body’s needs from a place of compassionate curiosity, not ridicule and judgement.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of intuitive eating, then I want you to take one step back. Healing your relationship with food should never be an all-or-nothing approach. We already covered how to break free from restrictive food rules, but this article covers a major first step in the process: food flexibility.
What Is Food Flexibility?
Think about it: what’s the common denominator of almost all social gatherings? Hello, food! Whether it’s a cast party, a birthday, a date, or a casual hang-out with family and friends, food is likely involved.
Food Flexibility allows dancers to adapt to an ever-changing food environment. The more flexible you are in your food choices, the more willing you are to move through life’s vast experiences with agility and ease.
Dieting and Food Inflexibility
I’ve previously explained how diet culture is becoming obsolete as The Wellness Diet (courtesy of fellow anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison) gains momentum. But whether you’re following a classic diet (examples include WW, paleo, keto) or just wanting to “clean” up your food choices for the sake of “health,” chances are you’re dieting. Regimented eating plans and the dieting mentality result in food inflexibility.
Food inflexibility makes it difficult to break food rules, evokes food guilt, and can leave dancers feeling isolated from their peers. With restrictive eating habits being the norm in today’s world, it can be tough to identify food inflexibility as a product of the dieting mentality. Here are a few key identifiers:
- Extreme anxiety about food and/or mealtimes.
- Experiencing overwhelming guilt after eating.
- Obsessive thoughts about food.
- Needing to avoid food that you are not in control of (AKA food you didn’t make yourself and therefore don’t know exactly what’s in it).
- Feeling out-of-control around food (compulsive eating, compensatory eating, or feeling like you cannot trust yourself around food).
Similar to achieving fluidity with your movement in the studio, the goal is to lessen your rigidity around food. Here are 3 tips for dancers to improve food flexibility:
Step 1: Eat Enough Food
It’s common for dancers to unintentionally undereat. Busy schedules and high levels of physical activity can diminish hunger cues. And if you’re not eating enough throughout the day or week, then you’re likely throwing off your fullness cues as well. To start, take a look at this article, which dives into a dancer’s calorie needs.
Step 2: Challenge The Food Police
Straight from the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, Challenge The Food Police involves banishing the chatter learned from years of messages telling you what you “should” and “shouldn’t eat. That voice in your mind that tells you what’s “healthy” versus “unhealthy” and “good” versus “bad.” Challenge it and remember: some foods nourish your body while others nourish your soul. And by the way, this doesn’t mean we’re totally forgetting about nutrition! Utilize gentle nutrition to make informed, not obsessive choices is the goal. You can learn more about this here.
Step 3: Use Food Neutrality to Diminish The Moral Value of Food
Deeming foods as “bad” evokes stress and anxiety when eating. There’s a difference between feeling physically unwell after eating (a common result of compensatory eating) and feeling like you’re being bad for eating. When we feel like we “shouldn’t” be eating a particular food, it’s easy to fall into that “might as well get it in before it’s gone” mentality.
Viewing food through a neutral lens involves viewing food for what it is: food. Use mindful eating techniques to do this. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods enables you to identify servings and “portions” that feel good in comparison to eating an amount of food that doesn’t feel good. If you’re worried about “over”-eating, then check out this article to learn how to stop eating when you’re feeling full.
Whether you’re new to The Healthy Dancer® platform or not, you’ll learn quickly that we’re not just a no-diet zone, we’re also an anti-diet zone. Instead of making food rules, we make food choices that are rooted in equal parts nutrition science, and pleasure. We support an inclusive approach to both food and body and stand against fatphobia and weight stigma. The goal is to ultimately empower all dancers to flourish as athletes and artists, without the negative implications often set forth by food restrictions, “clean” eating, and dieting.
If this is a struggle for you, then stay tuned- The Healthy Dancer® Food Flexibility Challenge kicks off every April (registration opens in March).