All dancers, whether at a professional or student level, need to develop a good combination of principles to fuel our minds and bodies. This means knowing, exploring and perfecting a “personally tailored” combination of food portion sizes, meal timings, and nutritional values. You need to remember that you train as an athlete does, so you must eat and continually hydrate for energy, strength & stamina.
From a personal perspective, I have found that I have to frequently graze throughout my days as to avoid lulls and spikes in my blood sugar and energy levels. Eating every 2-4 hours on average keeps the brain and nervous system satisfied, this will majorly aid in your concentration and ability to maintain choreography. They need a constant supply of energy, which can only come from food, but in conjunction, of course, with adequate hydration. The body also restores its glycogen during the two hours following exercise, so it is important to consume, even if it’s only something small, as soon as possible (aim for within 40 minutes), after strenuous exercise. I would also suggest looking at a ratio of your snack being carbohydrate and protein, 4-1.
White foods and foods high in sugar, such as bread, white rice, and junk foods break down very quickly in your system, eating these items is almost like eating plain sugar, with an immediate sugar rush followed by a very quick crash. In a turnaround of about fifteen minutes, you will most definitely be hungry again, and will be reaching for the same quick fixes.
Better sources of sustained carbohydrate energy are brown rice, whole grain breads, dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli), orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes or squash), beans, including lentils, garbanzo beans, black beans, pinto beans, etc., as all these foods will stay in the system for a few hours, continuously feeding energy to your mind and body. A banana would also make a good quick snack, and since they are rich in potassium, they also help to prevent cramping.
An intake of protein is also essential for all dancers who are training those long, hard hours. Protein is even required by those dancers who are not looking to building muscle, as it is there to repair the breakdown of muscle fibers that have been stressed by your performance or rehearsal. Protein is used as an auxiliary fuel, and it is important for synthesizing the many enzymes necessary for your metabolism.
For non-vegetarians, fish, meat, chicken or turkey without the skin are excellent protein sources. For vegetarians, spinach, tofu, seitan (wheat, gluten), raw nuts, eggs, peanut butter, and mixtures of beans/lentils are good protein choices. I was surprised to discover recently that protein powders are not necessary, even for male dancers, if they are following the recommendations above. If a protein supplement is warranted, the best choice is milk powder. The high tech and expensive protein supplements on the market are not any better than simple dry milk.
As a professional dancer, I know several colleagues who have suffered stress fractures, which lead them to missing important times in their careers. No dancer ever wants to take time off for an injury, which is why we need to know how to correctly fuel and maintain our bodies, they are, after all our tools for our craft! Low bone mass and a low calcium intake are the major associations connected to the risk of fractures. Dancers, particularly females, are in a high-risk group for low bone mineral density, stress fractures, and stress reactions. Calcium, as we all know, is integral in our bone formation.
During the first 2-3 decades of life, bone mass is developed and thereafter, bone formation ceases. It is essential to consume adequate calcium during the bone growth years, especially if we think about girls first starting out on Pointe. Budding Pointe dancers bones need to develop & strengthen correctly & we need to ensure that all precautions have been taken, so no future problems or injuries arise. By including enough calcium in your diet via the richest sources, being dairy products & our dark leafy greens, we give the dancers body the best start to her Pointe career.
Being keenly aware as dancers (and any other types of athlete for that matter) of the detrimental effects of dehydration and its ability to severely impair our capacity to learn and execute our performances is imperative. Without fluids, your muscles become unresponsive and more prone to injury, but as we hydrate and refuel them with water (or in some instances electrolyte/mineral enhanced drinks) the muscles become more pliable and therefore are then able to be moved with a greater ease.
As “athletes” we should consume up to 2 liters of fluids to replace those lost through motion, sweat and fatigue. If you can, bring a water bottle into your practices and rehearsals, for frequent rehydration. Following class and rehearsal, you should continue to increase fluid consumption for the next few hours. Avoid carbonated drinks and large quantities of fruit juice. A simple, yet not so graceful, way to monitor hydration is to check urine color: clear to light yellow is hydrated; yellow to dark yellow means dehydrated.
It is also good to make sure that in-between your meals you continue to have some form of liquid (it aides digestion). A handy tip is to sometimes combine both by having soups packed with loads of vegetables or lentils.
It is VITALLY IMPORTANT to be aware that a low intake of food or drink will not only compromise energy availability, but it can also lead to a lack of many micronutrients that could affect your performance, your overall growth development and health. In a nutshell, micronutrients are nutrients that are required by our bodies in small amounts, i.e. vitamins and minerals. Macronutrients, on the other hand, are nutrients that our bodies require in larger amounts, these include, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. If you feel that consuming all those nutrient dense foods will be too much to swallow, try juicing them! You are able to consume much more in the way of macronutrients and micronutrients by simply juicing all your favorite fruit and vegetable combos.
Dancers, in particular, should be cautious about taking vitamin and mineral tablets to supplement what they think they are lacking. These supplements contain only selected micronutrients and could actually do more harm than good. Excessive amounts of one can interfere with the absorption of another, and mega doses of some vitamins and minerals could actually be toxic to your system. I would instead suggest adjusting your diet so that it’s rich in micronutrients to obtain the recommended levels of each nutrient. Furthermore, there are numerous phytochemicals in food that impart important health benefits, of which a supplement cannot.
If we make a truly make conscious effort to choose better foods, frequently graze and sustain hydration, we will enable ourselves as dancers (and any other type of athlete) to have the strength needed to make it through a busy performance and class schedule. By consuming the adequate energy to meet the rigors of hard training and ingesting the right amounts and types of food/fluid will provide our bodies with the “high performance fuel” necessary to achieve. This practice will also extend the longevity of your career and ensure your body and mind are always firing at their physical peak, no matter what we throw at them.
Below are just a few simple swaps & tips for day-to-day thought:
Drink as much water as possible before reaching for those “energy” drinks etc.
Eat at least 4 cups of cooked vegetables – include dark, leafy greens
Eat 2-3 servings of fruit daily (fruit juice does not count)
Fish – 3 times a week, if you eat seafood (especially salmon and small fish)
Good fats – olive, safflower, nuts & seeds, avocado
Go natural – minimize salt, sugar, additives, preservatives
Nibble and graze throughout your day
Stay away from foods that don’t rot or sprout
Eat nutrient dense foods
Choose high fiber foods
Eat enough protein (100 grams if you weigh 150 lbs)
Stay away from hard to digest foods
Avoid processed and “white” foods
Variety and color are your keys!