Food for Thought

If dance is both an art and a sport, then our bodies are both our instruments and our machines. Therefore, it is vital to fuel our bodies with the proper nutrition and hydration so that we may continue dancing at our fullest potential. But how do we know what “balanced nutrition” means for a dancer? It can be frustrating to research a “diet” plan dancers because we exercise more than the “average Joe” yet do not want to bulk up with muscle. And the fact that the dance industry is often based on one’s physical appearance only complicates matters. To appease my anxiety, I turned to Tiffany Mendell, a registered dietitian at Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life.

Tell us about your experience as a dancer and how you became interested in nutrition.
I started dancing seriously when I was 13 and was a member of a performing and competition company all throughout high school.  I went on to major in dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA.  I was a modern major in school and danced with Philadanco II, a modern-based repertory company in Philly.  It was my experience in college that the dancers were the WORST eaters!  We were the ones dancing for 10 hours day and eating raw chocolate chip cookie dough in our dorm rooms at night!  That being said, in my first professional experience with Philadanco my artistic director did suggest that I lose about 10 pounds.  I knew NOTHING about nutrition.  My idea of eating to lose weight was a bowl of rice crispies for breakfast, a pretzel from the cart on Spruce Street for lunch and a bowl of Ramen noodles for dinner.  “Fat-free” was the nutrition trend back then, as there always are trends in the world of nutrition.  Of course, I wasn’t successful losing the weight because I wasn’t fueling my body properly, my metabolism was slow and I was starving, so then I would overeat!
I moved to NYC to pursue a career in dance, taking class at BDC when I could and auditioning for more jazz/musical theater type dance roles.  When I was in my mid-twenties my father (who was raised in the deep South where everything was fried with gravy on it!) was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.  He was very fortunate that he didn’t have a heart attack, and he ended up having seven bypasses and two stents placed in his heart.  We met with a registered dietitian when he was in the hospital to educate him on eating “heart healthy.”  Heart disease has a very strong genetic component, and I remember saying to my brother at that time that we were going to have to start thinking about our diet then, when we were young, because what we ate in our youth was going to affect our health in our older years.  I subsequently started reading everything I could about proper nutrition and attempting to make healthier changes in my diet.  I made a concerted effort to incorporate fruits and vegetables with every meal and snack, cutting out saturated fat and processed foods and eating sources of lean protein and the right kind of fat.  Consequently, my body just CHANGED.  My dancing improved profoundly, my energy levels were amazing, my skin was clear and I felt satisfied with every meal.  I actually felt that I was eating MORE, and while I wasn’t trying to lose weight I just did.   I was excited about good nutrition!  Then I got my job dancing with the New Jersey Nets dance team, which was a fantastic experience!

I always knew I would pursue another career after dance, and because I was always drawn to the nutrition articles in all my health magazines that I read I decided to go back to grad school for nutrition.  I danced for myself, and I was ready to use my knowledge and passion for nutrition to help others lead healthier lives.The dance industry has a reputation for being “unhealthy.”  Why do you think that is?

Dancers are under pressure to achieve a certain aesthetic.  Sometimes this pressure is from external sources, sometimes it is pressure they impose on themselves.  They tend to be perfectionists, but perfectionistic thinking can sometimes backfire and lead to self-sabotage.  Furthermore, a dancer may go to extremes to achieve this ideal because this is the only way they know how; perhaps they’re getting their nutrition information from unreliable sources on the internet, or they are getting misinformation and pressure from their peers.

For a healthy approach, I think it’s important for dancers to think of themselves as athletesas well as artists.  They need to fuel their bodies as athletes do, and depending on the sport athletes have different nutritional requirements.  Obviously a gymnast is going to eat differently than a linebacker.  But all athletes need to eat right for optimal performance, and dancers are no different.  Additionally, a dancer’s body is his or her instrument.  A violinist with the New York Philharmonic doesn’t just shove his violin in his duffle bag with his gym clothes after rehearsal.  He takes care to wipe it with a soft cloth, place it in its proper case, care for the strings, and tune it to ensure that his instrument sounds the way it’s supposed to.  Dancers need to focus on taking care of their bodies outside of the studio as much as they do in the studio.  This includes eating healthy, staying hydrated, and getting adequate sleep.What exactly is “balanced nutrition” for a dancer?

Balanced nutrition for anyone really just means eating the right proportion of high fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat.  It’s essential for dancers to understand that they need ALL of these components in their diet.  “Carbs” often have a negative connotation when it comes to weight management, but it’s important to know that carbohydrate provides energy for the body. Healthy carbs are those that our bodies use efficiently and are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals such as fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains.  You actually burn fat more efficiently with a little carbohydrate in the diet, and carbs help prevent protein being burned for energy. Lean protein is necessary for muscle growth and repair, which dancers need because vigorous activity breaks down muscle tissue.  Excellent sources are fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy as well as vegetarian sources such as beans and legumes, tofu, and edamame.  Fat is important in the diet because it helps our bodies absorb certain vitamins and provides satiety, meaning you feel satisfied after consuming it.  You’d likely be hungry an hour after eating an apple, but an apple spread with a little all-natural peanut butter will keep you satisfied longer!  Good sources of healthy fat include those from plants sources, such as nuts and nut butters, avocado, hummus, olive and canola oil.  A special type of fat called essential omega-3 fatty acids are especially important to fight inflammation in the body and are excellent for heart health. These fats are categorized as “essential” meaning the body can’t make them and they have to be consumed in the diet.  Excellent sources include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, and plant sources include ground flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts and canola oil.  Dancers should strive to include healthy fat with each meal and snack, but it’s important to watch your portion size because fat is a concentrated source of calories and it’s easy to go overboard.

In a typical day dancers are not always able to get in 3 traditional meals plus 2-3 snacks with their crazy schedules.  Going from 2 back-to-back classes and then to an audition and then rehearsal can make it difficult to get in a solid lunch, and dancers don’t want to feel “heavy” or full from a big meal when they have to dance right afterwards.  However, it’s important to eat small, frequent, balanced meals or snacks throughout the day.  Eating frequently helps you have a constant stream of energy for the day, keeps your metabolism from slowing down and prevents you from becoming famished and overeating. And EVERY dancer needs to get in a good breakfast before starting the day!

How much water should I be drinking each day?
For women the general guideline is 2.7 liters per day, for men it’s 3.7 liters per day, however, some of this comes from water in food.  It’s SO important for dancers to stay hydrated throughout the day…this includes starting the day with water!  Water helps your body absorb certain vitamins and minerals, aids in metabolism and helps to fill you up.  I always encourage my clients to carry a 1 liter BPA-free water bottle with them whenever they can; their goal is to drink two per day for women, three for guys.  Green or herbal tea, seltzer/club soda and sparkling water are also great drink options and can certainly be counted towards your water intake for the day.  I try to discourage people from drinking their calories because they are not as satisfying as real food and may lead to overconsumption of calories.  This includes sodas, sweetened water, tea and coffee drinks, juice and smoothies and energy drinks.  I also recommend staying clear from artificially sweetened drinks as well; research shows that artificial sweetener use is actually associated with weight gain and can increase sugar cravings.
What are the best foods to eat:
-before class/rehearsal?
-before a performance?
It’s best to have a meal about 1 1/2-2 hours prior to dancing, whether it’s class, rehearsal or performance.  This will allow ample time for digestion and won’t cause you to feel too full or experience any gastrointestinal discomfort while dancing.  As mentioned previously, your meal will contain a proper ratio of carbs, protein and fat, but because fat takes a long time to digest it’s especially important not to have a meal that’s too high in fat.  An example of a good breakfast to start your day would be a ½ cup of plain oatmeal made with a cup of skim milk and a tablespoon of chopped walnuts, or lunch could be a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and avocado with an orange on the side.  If you only have an hour or so before dancing, this is when it’s best to go for a smaller balanced snack, still containing some healthy carb and protein and/or fat.  An apple with a little all-natural peanut butter, a non-fat Greek yogurt with a tablespoon of chia seeds or some veggies and 2 tablespoons of  hummus would all be good options.
If you feel the need to “de-bloat” on the day of a performance, try avoiding all carbonated beverages, artificial sweeteners, gum and hard candy as well as sodium (mostly from processed foods).  Also, sipping on chamomile, peppermint, or ginger tea and eating some asparagus, celery, fennel, papaya or pineapple may help with that bloating feeling.
-after dancing?
What you eat after dancing will depend on your day.  If it’s been several hours since your last meal and you have some time before dancing again, this is when getting a good meal will help to refuel your body.  However, if you only have a short time before you have to dance again you still need to get in a little protein and healthy carb.  A half-cup of low-fat cottage cheese with some sliced red peppers or 15 almonds with a handful of grapes would be good choices.
-when overcoming injury/illness?
This is the time when it’s especially important to avoid high fat, high sugar, processed foods (which hopefully you are avoiding at all times!).  These foods can contribute to inflammation in the body, and when recovering from an injury or illness it is necessary to eat foods that help to combat inflammation.  This means getting in those essential omega-3 fatty acids from fish as well as walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.  And you want to make sure you’re getting in ample amounts of antioxidants from foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.  Berries, apples, artichokes, broccoli rabe, sweet potatoes, pecans, green tea and even dark chocolate are all excellent sources of antioxidants!   But these are foods that should be a regular part of your diet EVERY day, not just at times when you are recovering from illness!
 
Should I be taking vitamins and other supplements?
If you have a healthy, well-rounded diet there’s generally not a need to take a multivitamin/mineral or other supplements.  If you want to take a multi for insurance, it’s important to look for one that has no more than 100% of the Daily Value for each vitamin and mineral, and it can be taken every other day.  Of course, supplements are certainly warranted at times on an individual basis, but it depends on one’s diet and nutritional needs.  For example, it can be very difficult for vegans to get certain nutrients in their diet, such as vitamin B12, calcium, and zinc. Additionally, if someone doesn’t eat fish I would recommend taking a fish oil supplement to get the essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which help to fight inflammation in the body and contribute to heart health.  While you can get certain omega-3s from plant sources (such as flaxseeds or walnuts) these don’t provide the same type of omega-3s that fish provide.
 I ALWAYS recommend whole food over supplements.  You need to start with diet first.  Nutrients in food work synergistically, and individual supplements don’t always contain the proper ratio of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals for optimal absorption that nature provides through food.  Further, supplements that are advertised for weight loss are NEVER recommended.  They can be extremely dangerous or, at best, simply a waste of money.  The only sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off is through proper diet, exercise and good sleep habits, period.
If weight loss is a goal, how can I take a healthy approach?

First: You have to eat!  Skipping meals and snacks is the worst thing you can do for your metabolism, causing it to slow down and making it difficult to lose the weight.  Second: Cut out processed foods.  Often when people focus on getting in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables instead of potato chips they tend to lose weight automatically.  Third: It’s imperative to measure portion sizes, because it’s SO easy to overestimate portions.  I encourage people to get measuring cups, measuring spoons and even a digital scale and USE them!  It’s very eye-opening to see what a half-cup of cooked oatmeal looks like.  If a dancer wants to lose weight I would suggest starting with cutting back on starch servings (1-2 per day) because starch is higher in calories than other foods that are higher in water.  This could mean a piece of whole wheat toast with breakfast and a small sweet potato at lunch.  Additionally, as mentioned before, it’s particularly important to monitor fat servings as well.  A lot of people are surprised when I mention that a healthy serving of peanut butter is 2 teaspoons instead of 2 tablespoons, as what’s listed on the manufacturer’s label.  Fourth: Keep a food journal.  Research has shown that people who write down everything they eat have more success taking the weight off and keeping it off.  It really raises your level of awareness as to what is going into your body.  If you can, seek guidance from a registered dietitian who can help you devise a food plan to safely take the weight off while ensuring your body is getting the nutrition it needs.Are there books or websites that I can read to learn more?

I work in a private nutrition counseling practice for a wonderful registered dietitian named Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN.  She has written two books about nutrition that I would highly recommend called The Snack Factor Dietand The O2 Diet (and the upcoming Slim, Calm, Sexy). They’re great resources for someone wanting to learn more about nutrition, and would be excellent for dancers as well (and I’m not just saying this because I work for her!).  The information in the books is based on sound nutrition research and helps you to understand why we need carbs, protein and fat in our diet as well as goes into specifics on portion sizes and creating healthy menus.  I also really like Strong Women Eat Well by Miriam Nelson, PhD.  These books are about eating healthy for the rest of your life and make good nutrition accessible to anyone who reads them.
When searching for nutrition information on the internet it is very important to consider the source, because there is a lot of misinformation out there.  Reputable nutrition information will cite a body of scientific research (not just one article) and be based on the scientific literature, not just one person’s opinion.  Unfortunately, this information can be difficult for some people to discern.  Generally, if it promises a quick fix miracle or causes you to cut out huge food groups it likely isn’t quality nutrition information.

Who should I talk to if I’m feeling overwhelmed?
Whomever you trust.  This may be your parent, a good friend, a dance teacher, or a therapist.  It’s important to feel that you can turn to someone when you are overwhelmed, but be sure that this person has your best interest at heart.
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