Is there a perfect diet for dancers?
The perfect diet is the one that keeps you healthy and enables you to dance at your best. Typical signs that you aren’t eating right is that you fatigue early, you find it difficult to keep up your focus in class or memorize choreography, you feel your energy drop at some point (typically mid-morning/mid-afternoon), you dont feel really restored after sleeping, you often crave food, or maybe even you’re not as happy as you used to be.
Sports and dance nutrition are based on the moving body's needs and consider smart timing of nutrients to keep up your energy levels throughout the entire day at dance, so that you can focus, memorize, push in class, dont experience energy slumps, adapt to training as much as possible and keep your spirits up.
When it comes to nutrition, dancers differ a lot from what is recommended for non-dancers and non-athletes, which is fine as it is so important to acknowledge so that your diet doesn't hinder you from being the best dancer you can be!
So what is the best diet for dancers?
The best diet for dancers is the one that includes:
50% - 55% Carbohydrates
30% Dietary Fat
15% -20% Protein
Fewer carbohydrates reduce your ability to train and especially adapt to training.
Fewer dietary fats also reduce your ability to train. Fats are an essential part of every cell in your body, so if you reduce/cut them out, ultimately your cells can’t function properly.
Fewer protein reduces the ability of your muscles to keep up with your training, meaning you’re progressing slower in your training than your body would actually be able to, also, adolescent dancers have increased protein needs to cover for growth processes.
The diet you choose is the best diet for you.
Dancers have the choice to include all foods into their diet, to reduce animal products, or to exclude animal foods completely, it is really up to you. Your preferences and the foods your body responds to best should make up the basis of your diet, you can meet the requirements for dance with any diet, however, the more plant-based/vegan you go, the more of a challenge it can be for dancers to meet their needs, most often due to more plant-based diets requiring to eat more in volume to still cover for the energy expended at dance as well as the energy to simply be alive (think heartbeat, breathing, thinking, growing), and also protein quality can become an issue, esp. when dancers don’t mix and match or eat insufficient amounts of plant-based protein sources (see also next point).
Are there foods dancers should include or eliminate?
1. Let’s chat about plant-based diets.
The human body is designed to find it much easier to respond to animal foods than plant based foods. Dancers who have cut out animal products at all costs can be very surprised when they realise that including small amounts of animal foods make it much easier for them to adapt to training and master their training volume and load.
This doesn't mean that you can never thrive on a (mostly) plant based diet but it needs to suit your needs. Completely plant based/vegan won’t work for everyone although it is great for the planet. This is the moment to understand that it is okay if your diet looks different during your active years compared to the time when you retire from the stage. If you want to (re-)introduce some animal foods, see if you find organic versions that are affordable; this is another step towards sustainability.
2. Carbohydrates are a nutrient that is feared a lot.
Let’s not forget that carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel for dance. Including them enables you to train harder and longer. They restore the energy storage in your muscles (glycogen) that facilitates your dance moves, and reduce inflammation that always occurs after exercising. Fibre is also part of carbohydrates, it is what makes our gut bacteria happy although it is indigestible. Not eating enough carbs often means not getting enough fibre to keep our gut healthy and happy.
3. Dancers on a mostly/completely plant based diet often suffer with their protein intake and don't mix and match sources of plant based protein. This can negatively affect their muscle repair and adaptation to training. It is important to ensure that various plant based protein sources are added to your diet. (eg. tofu & grains or lentils)
There’s only very few foods that we sport dietitians/sports nutritionists would recommend to limit in intake:
Coconut oil for example is very popular but highly saturated fat (despite being a plant based source). Saturated fats should make up the smallest part of your dietary fat intake as saturated fats in general come with a couple of negative health effects. E.g. increasing LDL (the unfavorable type of cholesterol) and overall triglycerides - both have potentially negative effects on your cardiovascular health (e.g your blood vessels can become less flexible and also often narrow in diameter, which in turn increases blood pressure.)
Tips to feeling more energized in my dance classes?
You’re likely to not eat enough carbohydrates.
As mentioned earlier, you store some energy in your muscles (glycogen - which is a form of carbohydrate). Unfortunately, this storage is finite and often needs a ’refill’ already in the morning (if you dance in the morning).
Many dance schedules don't consider breaks, whereas a short break (5 mins could be enough) after each class could allow the dancers to stock up on a few carbohydrates for their next class to feel energized in that class.
Make sure that when you have an actual break, that your meal/snack includes simple and complex carbohydrates (e.g. 15 mins break and a yoghurt topped with some granola and fresh fruit)
When you feel your energy levels drop or you have no break except from running to another studio and change your shoes, something as simple as a few pieces or bites of dried fruit can restore your energy, even during class.
What is the best thing to help your muscles recover?
A decent snack within 30 mins of your last dance class, this can be as simple as a chocolate milk
A ratio of approximately 3:1 carbohydrates to protein (the opposite of what many protein bars advertise). This can be a banana or a few slices of apple dipped in nut butter.
Frequent protein pulses throughout the day. Multiple training sessions throughout the day make it hard for the body to recover. Make sure to include a good source of protein for lunch, and if you can, have some healthy fats too.
Make sure to get at least 12 hours of actual recovery!
Tips to improve my body image?
1. Uncover beliefs
- What are your own beliefs about the ‘ideal’ ballet body?
- What do you think happens if you don’t have the ‘ideal’ ballet body?
- Do you know successful dancers that don’t have the ‘ideal’ ballet body? (I bet you do!)
- Who defined the ‘ideal’ ballet body? Your teacher? Social media? History?
- Do you tie artistry solely to your outer appearance? If yes, why?
2. Practice compassion
- Don't focus on what you don't like on your body. Instead focus on what it helps you to do!
- You don’t need to love your body if you’re having a hard time with it, but it is important to start with respect and go from there.
- Maybe open up to close dance friends! We all often think everyone else has figured it out at all times, often they haven’t and sharing the same feelings and worries can ultimately help - and deepen your friendship!
- Don’t compete against others, the only person to compete against is you!
3. Focus on effort
Try and develop a growth mindset by focusing on:
- The hard work you put in (You’re allowed to be proud of that!)
- The persistence you show every single day
- Your progress in technique and artistry
- The wonderful feeling after a performance
- That every experience teaches you something
- How your developing body helps you to become a better and stronger dancer
4. Use mirrors sparingly
Mirrors can not only affect how you perceive your body but also impair :
Your use of space
Your awareness of space
Your alignment (e.g how you’re holding your head)
And definitely: stop comparing your appearance to others' appearance in the mirror. Ever come across ‘The fat mirror?’ I believe almost every studio has one, this mirror reflects something that is distorted.
5. Dare not to compare
- Comparing yourself to everyone else is a trap
- Learn to identify when you’re feeling vulnerable and easily impressed by others (or what you think you see in the media/on social media).
- Find techniques that help you switch off and not become more vulnerable (e.g. reduce screen time drastically on those days). It works wonders!
Sports dietitian tip
Learn how food can improve your ability to train and adapt to training as early as possible. The earlier you know the fundamentals of sports and dance nutrition, the higher the chances that misleading advice (media, class, peers) won't impress you. The earlier you know what is best for you as the beautiful individual that you are, the more resilient you are, which can reduce body image issues a lot.
How to tell if I’m looking after my body well enough?
Signs that tell you you’re not:
Growth and development slows down or stops
You aren’t as happy as you used to be, or you feel often sad & anxious
(Note that we all have the occasional day when we aren’t feeling great, but if this becomes a frequent occurrence, this is to be taken seriously. )
You notice that you’re somehow tired all the time although you try to sleep more, some will also be cold often than usual
You have frequent gastrointestinal issues (bloating, constipation, diarrhea, all sorts of discomfort)
You get dizzy or lightheaded during class
You have more infections (eg. common cold, head flu) than you used to have.
You find it more difficult than usual to focus in class or memorize choreography/corrections
You find yourself often off-balance in class
You’re not making real progress in training anymore
Your body composition changes and muscle definition isn't as much as it used to be
You’ve lost your period, have cycles >45 days or haven't had your first period at age 15/16. A regular menstrual cycle, aka regular periods are a monthly free health check-in. One of the hormones involved, estrogen, plays a huge role in bone health, and if you don't have regular cycles from a certain age on (typically 15/16) then estrogen levels are low and stress fractures often are a sign of these low levels. Estrogen also plays a huge role in our brain and enhances our learning and memory.
Frequent injuries, especially repeatedly in the same location (muscle, bone, tendons and ligaments) are a huge red flag! This is a sign that an underlying cause needs to be addressed as otherwise these will continue to show up. Causes can be not eating enough, not eating enough variety, not meeting nutrient needs for growth and development.
Is burnout common in dancers and tips to avoid it?
Many people see burnout as one diagnosis, but burnout itself stands for a lot of diagnoses!
You can be affected on the physical level, when a stressor becomes too much to handle (eg. high training volume and load, rest and time-off scarce, the environment is unsupportive or maybe even toxic) This can show in fatigue, frequent colds and other infections, headaches, muscle pain, change in appetite or sleep habits.
Your body is coping well but your mind isn’t - you feel detached, helpless, have a sense of failure and self doubt. You could experience a loss of motivation, and nothing makes you happy.
Key is again to learn to take care of your body and mind from an early age on. This will help you build resilience/coping mechanisms to deal well in an unsupportive environment. It is important to establish a nurturing mindset to spot signs early and then be proactive!
The 3 R approach is helpful -
Recognize - watch for warning signs of burnout (journaling can help a lot to spot signs early!)
Reverse - undo the stressors by seeking support and learn strategies to manage stressors
Resilience - Practice what you learned in point 2 and take care of your emotional and mental health. The healthier you are, the less likely are the stressors to have the same negative influence again.