• Food Essentials for Dance – Protein

    In the fitness world, protein is sometimes held up higher than the other macronutrients. And, protein is definitely necessary for our bodies to function, and it is incredibly important for dancers to support growth and muscle development. BUT, the focus on protein consumption is sometimes taken to an extreme. Having a well balanced foodscape with protein, carbohydrates, and fat will ultimately help dancers and athletes get the proper nutrition they need to fuel their bodies. With that out of the way, let’s dive deeper into protein – what it is, where do we find it, and how can it help dancers in their training and recovery. 

    So first off, what is protein? Protein is often referred to as the “building block of life” because our skin, bones, muscles, hair, nails, and cartilage are predominately made up of protein. It also helps to manufacture our hormones to help our body maintain homeostasis. Protein also supports our immune function and energy level. In fact, the enzymes in some proteins facilitate the many chemical reactions in our body, like our metabolism and digestion. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which is what the body uses to build up the muscles, bones, and tissues in our body and support all of the processes that we just talked about. Now, I know this is getting a bit technical, but amino acids come into play with our nutrition needs. There are around 20 different amino acids, and our body can actually produce 10 of them on our own. BUT, we HAVE to get the others from what we eat. So as you can see, having adequate protein amounts as well as having diversified protein intake is important for our body to function. 

    Whew, that was a lot, but you made it! I promise this is not a science lesson! Okay, so how does this translate to your nutritional need as a dancer? Because proteins are building blocks, they make sure that our muscles and bones develop, stay strong, and recover, which is important for all dancers, but especially for students. Proteins also work with carbohydrates to breakdown and deliver glucose effectively, which means sustained energy throughout long dance days. For those long theater weeks, protein makes sure our immune system stays strong with antibodies. And for women, protein is important during our monthly cycle because protein helps to balance our hormones. 

    Our protein needs will shift based on our age, gender, muscle development, and activity level, so the recommended range is from 10%-35% of your total caloric intake. Keep in mind that as a dancer, and especially when you are growing, your body more likely will want to be on the higher end of that percentage. What I always like to highlight though is that every body is different, with different nutritional needs when it comes to food. It will take time to figure out just how much protein your body needs, and remember, this can even change for you day to day, so it is always important to listen to your body.. As a guide, here are some signs that you might not be getting enough protein – if you have frequent and long lasting aches, pains, and muscle soreness, thinning hair, brittle nails, feeling hungry soon after eating, low energy levels and muscle loss. 

    When we think of protein sources, often meat is the first type of food that comes to mind. Whole food animal products are great sources of protein, but there are also a lot of plant foods that have a great protein content as well. Chicken, beef, pork, eggs, and dairy products like whole milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese are all on the high protein list. Plant sources of protein include whole grains, quinoa, beans, legumes, peas, tempeh, tofu, edamame, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, and even seaweed. The great thing about plant sources of protein are that they are usually cheaper in price, and they have many vitamins and minerals that animal food do not have. Protein products like protein powder and bars can have their place in a dancer’s day, but they are not necessary for everyone. They can be a great option to have in moderation, especially if you know that you struggle with getting protein throughout the day. But, they should not be relied on as your main source of protein. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get your protein from multiple different foods to have a complete protein profile in your nutrition. So get creative, and try new meal and snack combinations! 

    Many dancers worry about getting enough protein in, but really all you need is some thoughtful planning. Focus on incorporating a few protein rich foods in every meal and snack, and it should be plenty to satisfy your protein needs. As mentioned earlier, protein helps to keep our energy levels stable, so it is important to eat protein throughout the day, but especially at the beginning of the day and after you finish dancing to help with muscle growth and repair. Some examples of a protein packed breakfasts before dance include oatmeal topped with peanut butter, hemp seeds, and fruit. Or have a smoothie with flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Egg or tofu scrambles are also great options, and are great for adding in some veggies in the morning. Experiment with your breakfast and see what fuels you up for classes and rehearsals, and what helps you stay full, fueled, and focused without that sluggish feeling. During the day, snacks like hummus with veggies or whole grain pita, an apple or banana with nut butter, hard boiled eggs, edamame, yogurt and granola, or a trail mix are all fast and easy options. You can also think about incorporating foods like quinoa, chickpeas, brown rice, or chicken in with your lunches. After dance, focus on having a meal with ingredients like whole grains, beans, legumes, tempeh, and/or animal sources to help your body repair and recover. 

    I hope this post helped you learn more about protein and its function in the body. And, I hope that you have been inspired to try some new foods or meal combinations! The last macronutrient that we will focus on is fat, so be sure to stay tuned.

  • Food Essentials for Dance – Carbohydrates

    Let’s talk about carbs, baby! And why they are good for you and me! Carbohydrates get a bad reputation in the world of keto and paleo, but this macronutrient is extremely important for the proper function of our body. Usually, when people think of carbs, they think of bread, pasta, sugary cereals, and processed snacks, but there are so many whole food carbohydrate sources that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber that keep your body fueled for dance. 

    Without getting too sciency, let’s break down carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. During digestion, all carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars – glucose – to be distributed through the bloodstream to our cells for energy. How quickly this process happens depends on the type of carbohydrate, more on this a little later. Carbohydrates not only fuel our muscles, which is important for our energy levels and performance level in the dance studio,  but they also power our brain, meaning that it helps with our concentration and mental clarity during classes and rehearsals. Carbohydrates also contain fiber, which is a part of the carbohydrate that cannot be broken down into glucose. Fiber slows the absorption of glucose, which is energy, into the bloodstream to help us avoid a spike in energy. Fiber also helps us to regulate our digestion and bowel movements. 

    It is recommended to get 45%-65% of your daily caloric intake from carbohydrates. The amount of carbohydrates you need will be different from someone else, and it can even be different for you day to day depending on your dance schedule and activity level. This is where intuitive eating can be helpful, because you can assess day to day and meal to meal what your body needs. 

    There are three different types of carbohydrates, and as we mentioned earlier, they are broken down differently depending on their structure. Simple carbohydrates are made up of small compounds so they are broken down into glucose quickly by the body, giving us fast energy. These are in foods like fruit, honey, dairy, and sugar. When you eat a simple carbohydrate, like an apple, alone, you might find that you get energy quickly, but it does not last long. You might also feel full after eating an apple, but might find yourself looking for another snack 30 minutes later. Fruit does have fiber, which slows the absorption of glucose into the body, but on its own, it is not a substantial snack or meal. Simple carbohydrates are great when paired with complex carbohydrates, fat, and/or protein. 

    Next up, complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates live up to their name. They contain larger compounds, starch, and fiber, that take more time for the body to break down into glucose, digest, and absorb into the body. This means that complex carbohydrates provide more stable, long lasting energy and hunger levels. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole wheat, barley, and couscous are a part of the complex carbohydrate family. Pseudograins like amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are also in this group. Vegetable, starchy veggies, beans, legumes, peas, nuts, and seeds, are also complex carbohydrates. Each of these whole foods is also packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support our body’s many functions.

    Lastly we are going to talk about refined carbohydrates, which are carbohydrates that have been broken down in the manufacturing process and have had part of the whole food removed. Usually, the fiber has been removed, meaning that refined carbohydrates are broken down quickly into glucose. They can often lead to a quick spike in energy but can lead to unstable energy and hunger levels when eaten by themselves. They also tend to not be as nutritionally dense as their whole food counterparts. These are foods like white rice, white flour, white bread, white pasta, as well as cereals, crackers, and other packaged goods. These types of refined carbohydrates can actually be useful for dancers when paired with some protein and/or fat. They provide calories and quick energy that dancers often need in between classes and rehearsals. Refined carbohydrates are also foods that have added sugar in them like baked goods, candy, and many processed foods and snacks. Now I want to be clear, these are not bad foods, nor should they be completely restricted! Instead, I want you to think about them in terms of fueling your body. Think about if you only ate a big slice of cake for lunch in between rehearsals. You would probably start rehearsal with a lot of energy, but you might also experience an energy crash soon after. You might also experience hunger an hour later. Eating only cake for lunch might also give you a headache or stomach ache, which is just not fun to try to dance with. So, only having that slice of cake for lunch might not make you feel your best while dancing, but having a small slice of cake to enjoy after a nourishing meal post dance? Absolutely! These foods are great to enjoy in moderation and truly savor the taste and experience. 

    When looking at all carbohydrates, we might have ones that we prefer, and we might have some that we have applied food rules to. When learning to eat carbohydrates intuitively, it is important to not look at one type of carbohydrate as “off limits”, but to see how our bodies use them differently. Notice how they make you feel! Simple and refined carbohydrates, when eaten by themselves, might make us have unstable hunger or energy levels, but eating a meal or snack that combines them with other complex carbohydrates, protein, or fat can provide energy and nutrition for a dancer during a long day. Complex carbohydrates are important for their fiber and nutrient content. Focusing on complex carbs before and after dance will help to fuel our bodies for a long day and then help to replenish our energy stores after dance. Lastly, refined carbohydrates that have added sugar are those foods that we can enjoy in moderation purely for the pleasure of them. When we eat a lot of them, or rely on them to make up the bulk of our meals or snacks, we might feel like our energy levels, hunger levels, or even mood are affected by them. But enjoying a little bit every day is an important part of life. Restricting these might lead us to overeat them when they are available, making us feel out of control. Read more about that here

    Before dance, think of integrating complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, quinoa, or other grain into a sweet or savory breakfast bow. Or you can have whole grain toast or cereal with other foods! You can add veggies in the form of an egg scramble or roasted potatoes, or you can add fruit to your breakfast. During a dance day, think about having carbohydrates that are quicker to digest. Remember to eat these with protein and/or fat for staying power! Having a sandwich, pasta salad, smoothie, granola with yogurt, crackers and hummus, dried fruit in trail mix, or a piece of fruit with nut or seed butter are great options. After dance, it is important to replenish the body, so complex carbohydrates are great to have here. Whole grains, veggies, starchy vegetables, and nuts and seeds are great to have here. If you want dessert or a favorite snack food with one of these meals or snacks, then do it! 

    There are so many ways that we can incorporate carbohydrates into our meals and snacks to fuel our dancing. Carbohydrates support our energy, brain function, and digestion, and so they are an equally important macronutrient to eat. Coming up, we will be talking about protein and fat, how they support our bodies, and what are some ways to incorporate them into our meals and snacks. Until then, experiment adding in different carbohydrates into your day!

  • What Makes a Healthy Dancer

    When I talk to groups of dance students, I ask them to come up with some words or phrases that they would use to describe a healthy dancer. I get a lot of great answers like “vegetables”, “strong”, and “injury free”, and I use this exercise to point out that there are many different aspects that contribute to a dancer’s wellness. It’s not just nutrition or just physical ability and cross training that help a dancer be the best they can be. Dancer health encompasses physical as well as mental and emotional health, which is all wrapped up in a delicate balance. Taking care of how you view your body, your relationship with food, self-esteem and confidence, and overall happiness are just as important as working towards physical goals like increasing turnout or improving steps in a variation. Balancing wellness for the whole self allows for freedom to be expansive in the studio and on stage and also be able to have a life outside of dance.  

    What are the elements that contribute to the physical, emotional, and mental health of a dancer?

    Obviously nutrition plays a significant role in our health. Food is what gives our body physical sustenance through calories, giving us energy to get through long days of dance and refuel our bodies after. Macronutrients and micronutrients support our body’s many functions like immunity, muscle function, recovery, fluid balance, and so much more. As I’ve mentioned many times, I am a huge advocate for an intuitive style of eating because it allows dancers to create a healthy relationship with food and with their body. It takes into account individuals’ different needs and preferences when it comes to nutrition, and allows the individual to ultimately listen to their body’s hunger cues, cravings, and signals. We build our foodscape by taking basic nutritional information and applying it to our own body and circumstances. You can find out more about intuitive eating and hunger cues here and here

    Sleep plays a huge part in our physical recovery by giving our muscles time to repair and by keeping inflammation in check, which ultimately decreases injury susceptibility. Sleep is also vital to our brain and memory function. It helps us stay alert and focused during class and rehearsals and gives us a greater capacity for energy and motivation. And let’s just be real for a second, we typically are in a much better mood when we aren’t sleep deprived. Achieving sleep health and regularity is a huge topic, but I just wanted to mention a few ideas to try when establishing a nighttime routine. Try to aim for a regular 7-8 hours of sleep at night, go to bed around the same time and wake up at the same time each day. Make sure your room is comfortable, dark, and cool, and reserve your bed for sleeping only. Limit caffeine during the afternoon and evening if that is something that affects you and also try to shut off screens a few hours before bedtime. Not all of these will be helpful for every person, but I would encourage you to try one or two if you are someone who struggles with sleep! 

    Rest and recovery, like sleep, allow our body and mind to repair and recharge. In an art form that is physically demanding, it is vital for dancers and students to take breaks from ballet and from all physical activity. It might feel counterintuitive to take time off, but it helps our bodies to find prolonged rest, helps us cope with stress and keeps us from getting burnt out. Recovery tools like epsom salt baths, rolling out, icing as needed, putting your feet up after a long day, can help your body recover during weeks of dance. Using days or even weeks of physical and mental breaks from dance can involve anything that you love doing that rejuvenates your body and mind. Some of mine include reading, baking, meditation, spending time outside, journaling, and talking with friends. Again, what allows you to rest is going to be personal and might be different from other dancers. These breaks help me to come out of intense ballet mode and bring me into just being. That way when I do go back to a full time dance schedule, I feel refreshed, ready, and excited to be back. 

    So, I know that we just talked about taking breaks and finding rest, but strategically incorporating movement can also help us live physically balanced lives in and out of the studio. I use the word “strategically” because it’s not about overdoing any physical activity, leading to exhaustion and overuse injuries. Accounting for times to rest, cross training can help dancers get stronger by working on the weaknesses we have in dance and helps us to even out our strength by focusing on muscles and movements we don’t use often in dance. During breaks away from the studio, exercise also helps us to keep our joints moving and muscles limber. Again, type of cross training will vary from dancer to dancer. Yoga, pilates, bodyweight exercises, weightlifting, and/ or some form of specific cardio are all options that use our bodies in different ways and for different physical needs. It is important to remember that cross training is a tool to help us in our dancing, not to be used in extreme or without purpose. 

    The last two areas contribute to our mental and emotional health more than to physical health. Dancers are usually creatives, many having passions and outlets outside of dance, which is an amazing thing. Having 100% time, energy, and focus into one thing, like dance, usually means that our feelings of success and accomplishment are limited to one thing. When we inevitably experience an injury, are laid off, or are just having an off day or week in dance, our inability to or frustration in dance gets tied to our worthiness, which lowers our self-esteem. We can find ourselves feeling lost because the one focus in our lives is now not what we want it to be. Having a creative or educational outlet, and even just having practices that spark joy, allow us to experience a sense of lightness when we are struggling with something in dance. For some, this might mean continuing their education, learning a new hobby, or exploring a different art form or different type of movement than what they are used to. For others, it might be just integrating daily or weekly practices that provide a sense of grounding. I love hiking, reading, writing, baking, journaling and traveling for that reason. Life experience helps us bring different approaches to dance, which ultimately contribute to building our own sense of artistry on stage. These outlets cultivate inspiration, motivation, and even gratitude in and outside of the studio. 

    Lastly, supportive relationships are important for our wellbeing and happiness. These can be friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, support groups, counselors, and significant others who give you the space to share your experiences and feelings. There is mutual support, encouragement, and understanding found in these relationships and reminds us that we are not alone. Being able to express what we are going through helps us reduce stress and anxiety, helps us to feel important, heard, and validated, and gives us a chance to listen to advice and outside perspectives to our situations. A supportive community in the audience, or on the other side of the phone or couch, makes the hard experiences a bit easier and celebrations feel even more special.

    It takes time to find the practices that help balance your physical, mental, and emotional health as a dancer. But ultimately, your health and happiness are so much more important than achieving every role, promotion, and opportunity as a dancer. If you take care of your whole self and find balance in your training and your career, you might find the freedom to truly dance for yourself.