I want to stay healthy and I want to be in shape for dance, but I have so many cravings and no willpower around food! What are some tips for dancers to eat a healthy and balanced diet?
I often see new dancers strive for a “perfect” diet to unlock their performance potential and/or reach their body goals. Striving for perfection, however, risks unhealthy habits, even when those habits are coming from a meaningful place. Remember: perfection doesn’t exist and when we strive to implement perfection or “clean” standards on our food choices, we risk entering a restrictive tunnel of eating, ultimately leading to burnout.
A common misconception among dancers is the idea that a “healthy” diet means eating the “right” foods, avoiding the “bad” foods, and achieving a certain weight. To best address the role of nutrition in a dancer’s diet, let’s look at the most common questions that I receive as a dance nutritionist.
What nutrients do dancers need?
Question 1: What types of food should dancers eat?
To preface the types of foods recommended in a dancer’s diet, it’s important to address a dancer’s calorie needs. I don’t often focus on calories when working with clients, however, many dancers tend to underestimate their calorie needs. Calories provide the energy needed to not only perform but also to sustain basic metabolic functioning. Though calories are often feared in our diet-obsessed culture, calories are essential to a dancer’s active lifestyle. Eating too few calories risks injury and nutrient deficiencies. To learn more about how many calories a dancer needs in a day, check out this article.
Though calories are often feared in our diet-obsessed culture, calories are essential to a dancer’s active lifestyle. A balanced diet incorporates meals and snacks that balance all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. This ratio, or what I like to call the “nutrient mix,” is critical to a dancer’s menu.
Carbohydrates (goal: 55-60% of a dancer’s diet) are a dancer’s best source of energy. Complex carbs are found in plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains, such as oats, farro, bulgur, barley, and freekeh, are particularly high in energizing nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Quinoa is technically a seed but is often eaten like a grain. Remember, non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens) should not replace grain-based carbs on your plate. Incorporate both as part of a balanced meal. Check out this article to learn more about optimizing your carbohydrate choices.
Protein (goal: 12-15% of a dancer’s diet) has long been considered the star macronutrient in our diet-drenched culture. While protein plays a key role in muscle building, the body also requires carbs and fats. Without these two macros, the body breaks down muscle (protein stores) for energy. Protein is found in both animal- and plant-based foods. Animal-based proteins like fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt are considered high in biological value. In other words, these proteins provide all essential amino acids for muscle building. Vegetarians and vegans can obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based diets, however, it requires proper planning. The good news? Today’s food landscape offers an abundance of plant-based high-quality proteins such as pseudo-cereals (quinoa and buckwheat) and ancient grains (farro and freekah). A diet rich in these foods as part of a variety mixed with veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes can provide all essential amino acids to working muscles.
Fat (goal: 30% of a dancer’s diet) is an essential nutrient for a dancer’s active body. Our society’s overwhelming fear of fat however often overshadows the vast health benefits surrounding this macronutrient. Adding fat to a meal promotes satisfaction, which keeps us full throughout the day. A dancer’s body undergoes a great deal of wear and tear from high levels of physical activity. Unsaturated fats predominantly found in oils (olive and canola), fatty fish (salmon, tuna), avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butter offer anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce inflammation and promote muscular repair.
The micronutrients are also essential and include vitamins and minerals like calcium, Vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. To learn more about these nutrients, sign up for my 3-day nutrient crash course, which is specifically designed to outline a dancer’s micronutrient needs.
Question 2: How much water should a dancer drink during the day?
Our body is made of 60% water and therefore, it’s critical to replenish and hydrate! I encourage dancers to aim for at least 3 liters of water daily. Daily needs may be higher if dancing for longer than 60 minutes and/or in hot and humid environments. To optimize your hydration on intense dancing days, add a salty snack (like pretzels) and a simple carbohydrate (like fruit) to replenish electrolytes and muscle glycogen.
BTW- our thirst mechanism doesn’t activate until the body is already approaching dehydration. Instead of relying on thirst to dictate your water intake, plan ahead and remain diligent. A 1-liter reusable water bottle is a great way to remember to hydrate regularly. Refill it 3 times throughout the day! To learn more about a dancer’s hydration needs, read this article.
Question 3: How do I banish cravings for unhealthy foods?
This might surprise you, but the best way to banish cravings is to ENJOY them! Though we sometimes feel that sugar is addicting, there is no solid evidence to support this! There is evidence however to support the fact that RESTRICTIONS drive cravings. Intense cravings often result from the moral value placed on more indulgent foods. When we label these foods as “bad” and/or place these foods on a self-imposed “forbidden food” list, we subconsciously desire them. Humans are curious beings… we want what we can’t have! Rather than running from your cravings, enjoy them mindfully and as part of a well-rounded meal plan. If you’re feeling guilty when eating such foods, then read this article ASAP.
It’s not easy to build new habits! Most often, this requires behavioral change as a means to rebuild our relationship with food and body. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is encouraged for dancers looking for a personalized approach. A licensed professional will help you unlock the power of meal planning, macronutrient optimization, and help with enhancing your body’s utilization of micronutrients.
Question 4: How Can I Become The Healthy Dancer®?
The importance of dance nutrition goes beyond our plate. This is why I created www.DanceNutrition.com. Dancers, dance educators, and dance parents can utilize this free resource site to access information and guides about fueling your dance performance! Click here to access courses, guides, articles, and more! As a former professional dancer, I get it. We balance the high demands of our art with industry pressures that promote unrealistic ideals around food, body and work ethic. My experiences in both pre-professional and professional dance life provide me with a deep insight into your lifestyle and your performance goals.
The Healthy Dancer® community offers free and paid resources that can help dancers build sustainable habits. Start your journey here to determine where you stand in your relationship with food. You’ll receive a free workbook to start the work. From there, consider joining our free 3-day crash course that dives into your nutrient needs as an artistic athlete. You can also find free downloadable guides covering topics like Dancing In College, Emotional Eating, Injury Recovery, and Healthy Snacking.
For continued support with a budget-friendly price tag, move through The Healthy Dancer® Survival Guide, a series of downloadable ebooks. Choose from a variety of versions, including:
To take it a step further, consider The Healthy Dancer®, an online training program designed to support your long-term career. You have two options to choose from: The Healthy Dancer® Basic Program, which is a self-study course that includes one private coaching call and unlimited email support, or The Healthy Dancer® Elite Program, which includes a personalized plan, bi-monthly coaching calls, and unlimited email support. NEW group coaching is also available bi-annually through The Healthy Dancer® Summer Intensive and The Healthy Dancer® Winter Intensive. These offer an ongoing community, professional masterclasses, workshops, and more.