“Perfection,” in the context of food, can lead us down a path of unsustainable eating habits. In pursuit of perfecting performance, dancers are especially swayed by the illusion of a “perfect” or “clean” diet. The problem, however, is that labels like “good foods” and “bad foods” foster a negative experience while eating. The creation of food rules further leads to a cycle of guilt, anxiety, and stress surrounding all foods.
But not following food rules doesn’t mean that we’re not aiming for improvements in health and/or performance. We can utilize nutrition education in a non-obsessive way to make lifestyle changes that help us achieve our goals (more on this topic in this blog post). To do this, we shift our intentions. Rather than aiming for perfection, we optimize our food choices to help with energy levels, higher jumps, mental clarity, and so forth. Let’s break down a few subtle changes you can make to optimize your plate (rather than perfect your plate) for performance.
Dancers: don’t forget to scroll to the bottom for your FREE downloadable guide on how to Build A Balanced Plate.
The average person’s body is made of 60% water. Replenishing daily losses is even more important for dancers, whose physical activity results in higher-than-normal fluid losses. But how much fluid should a dancer aim for in a day? Individual recommendations vary, but a starting point is three liters. You’ll need a bit more if you’re rehearsing for longer periods or dancing in hotter and more humid climates (such as during the summer intensive season).
Optimize Your Plate: For dancers struggling to meet their energy needs through food each day, adding calorically dense fluid to meals, like juice and/or milk, counts towards this hydration goal. When drinking water, optimize your hydration with a salty snack (like olives or pretzels) and easily digestible carbohydrates to replenish lost glycogen and electrolytes. Eating an array of fruits and veggies throughout your week also helps to keep you hydrated.
Get In Your Carbohydrates
For dancers, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. In other words, of the three macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), carbs are the easiest for your body to metabolize. Complex carbs are high in dietary fiber, which slows digestion for steadier energy levels. Simple carbs offer quicker energy (like that pick-me-up you might need before class ends). Read this article to learn more about the differences between simple and complex carbohydrates.
Optimize Your Plate: Incorporate plant-based foods such as whole grains like oats, barley, farro, bulgar, and brown rice in addition to starchy veggies like potatoes, corn, and squash. Fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds are also helpful options!
Mix In Your Protein
There are two sources of protein in the human diet: animal proteins and plant proteins. Animal proteins are often considered “high in biological value,” which means that they contain all essential amino acids necessary for muscle building. However, vegetarian and vegan dancers can obtain all essential amino acids from a well-planned plant-based diet.
Optimize Your Plate: If you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, incorporate animal proteins like whole eggs, milk, yogurt, chicken, cheese, and meat. If plant-based, aim for abundance and variety. Professional resources are available to help plan your plant-based diet. You can also learn more from this article. Calcium-containing foods are essential for a dancer’s bone health. Additionally, Vitamin D aids with calcium absorption and bone metabolism. Proactively incorporate calcium- and vitamin D-containing foods like yogurt, cheese, and milk. Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, fortified orange juice and milk products, mushrooms, and egg yolks. Aim for at least 3-servings of calcium- and vitamin D-containing foods daily.
Get Over Your Fear of Fat!
Fat is an essential macronutrient, especially for active dancers. Adding fat to meals and snacks promotes satisfaction, helping you to feel full, satisfied, and NOT hangry! Fat also aids in hormonal balance, enhances vitamin absorption, and even helps to reduce levels of inflammation, which occurs naturally from dancing.
Optimize Your Plate: Heart-healthy fats like olive and canola oil, nuts and nut butter, avocados, and wild fish are beneficial to the body. Other sources of fat like butter, coconut oil, and whole-milk dairy can be extremely satisfying options when included in moderate amounts. To learn more about the role of fat in the body, check out this article.
Don’t Forget About Fun Foods
Spoiler: this is the most important part of optimizing your plate. Your performance as a dancer is a product of three factors: your physical health, your mental health, and your emotional health. Focusing too much on “perfecting your plate for performance” is not the goal. Make space for ALL foods to fit into your day. Utilize an intuitive approach to choose foods that satisfy you and bring happiness to your plate. Refer to the following articles as resources for balancing performance nutrition and intuitive nutrition.
Article written with help from student Caitlin Alfano. Expert edited reviewed by Rachel Fine.