• The Downside of Dieting and Diet Culture in Dance

    *disclaimer: in this post, dieting refers to ways of eating and the communities and resources that promote strict food rules and calorie restriction.

    What we eat affects how we feel, think, and behave. It affects our energy, emotions, lifestyle, and it influences how we view ourselves.

    Food is so much more than sustenance, it has become a vehicle for self love or self loathing, an emotional crutch, or even something that causes anxiety. It is also a way to express love and care, and it is so deeply ingrained in culture and in our own memory. Food is not black and white. It is not purely scientific. It is the cinnamon rolls your grandmother taught you how to make, it is your favorite meal that your mom made for you growing up, it is that tie back to your ancestry when you live hundreds of miles away. We gather around food during celebrations, and we turn to food for comfort and solace. We are taught from a young age that foods are “good” or “bad” and that they can physically define us as an individual. Food is also political, it is business, it is exploitative of resources, and for many it is their livelihood. All of these facets are what make food so controversial. This all encompassing nature is why I am so passionate about it.

    In the midst of all of these messages we are receiving about food and our bodies, one of the most prevalent ones we detect starting from an early age is this “need” to be on a diet. But it is overlooked that there is such a strong link between dieting, relationship with food, and body image. Here are some pretty sobering statistics:

    • Weight regain is the typical long-term response to dieting, rather than the exception

    Source: Why do dieters regain weight? Calorie deprivation alters body and mind, overwhelming willpower. American Psychological Association, Retrieved May 17, 2019 (https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/05/calorie-deprivation)

    • 75% of American women endorse unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies

    Source: Three Out Of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating, Survey Suggests, Science News, Retrieved May 17, 2019, from (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080422202514.htm)

    • Almost half of American children between first and third grade want to be thinner and 50% of girls ages 9-10 are dieting

    Source: Something “Needs Improvement,” But It’s Not Your Body, Retrieved May 17, 2019, from (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/something-needs-improvement-its-not-your-body)

    • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives

    Source: Something “Needs Improvement,” But It’s Not Your Body, Retrieved May 17, 2019, from (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/something-needs-improvement-its-not-your-body)

    • 35% of “normal dieters” progress into habitual dieting (disordered eating), and as many as 25% advance to full-blown eating disorders

    Source: Something “Needs Improvement,” But It’s Not Your Body, Retrieved May 17, 2019, from (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/something-needs-improvement-its-not-your-body)

    If diets don’t work and cause social, emotional, mental, and physical trauma, then why are they still so popular?

    We are in a society that loves quick fixes, a ten step plan, and a guarantee. In a fast paced and unintuitive world, out-sourcing nutritional knowledge and habit formation to books or magazines with photoshopped images of the “ideal” body type and a one size fits all diet plan seems like the easiest and most direct way to reach our goals. These curated diet plans take the research, decision making, and effort off of your plate so we can continue in the busyness of life. All we have to do is follow the neatly arranged shopping list and 5 recipes and we will get the body you desire in no time! And diets often work at first, any time you restrict caloric intake will lead to initial “weight” loss (I hold the “weight” term loosely because it’s often a misconception that it’s fat loss when it can actually be water weight and even muscle loss). After a few weeks, maybe your physique has shifted a little, but you might feel hungry, bored, uninspired. Self worth is tied to a number on the scale, not how your body actually feels, so signs such as hunger, loss of energy, and a worsening relationship with food are ignored or even go undetected. Cravings hit, your energy drops, and all you can think about are those “bad” foods. And so your body, starved of energy, yo-yos back the other way. It’s this cycle of restriction, weight loss, loss of motivation, binge, weight gain, self-disgust, dread, motivation, repeat. Dieting relies solely on motivation and willpower, and ignores the body’s wants and needs. It’s exhausting.

    It can be frightening looking at the statistics above and also see how the effects of dieting have impacted those around me. During my pre-professional ballet years, I was never given information on the effects of dieting and calorie restriction. Unfortunately, diet culture, especially in the form of restriction, is still prevalent in dance. I remember receiving talks where I was told that “calories are calories” no matter what you eat, but just “make sure you don’t exceed this amount of caloric intake so that you stay thin”. Food was something you had to watch, because too much could cost you your status, and a tight control over what you ate was something that was praised. Ballet still prizes certain body types over another, and ignore the fact that almost no one can naturally and healthfully adhere to this standard. Topics such as nourishing your body with whole foods, fueling your body as an athlete, adopting an intuitive approach to eating, body image, and relationship with food were never discussed. To be honest, repairing the relationship I have with food and with my body is still a daily task for me, and is why I want to help change the culture of dieting and body image in the dance world.

    So let’s talk a little bit more about dieting in terms of dance, and how it affects dancers physically, mentally, and emotionally.

    Dieting leads to energy restriction because it promotes calorie deficits. This type of restrictive eating comes with fatigue, which affects your physical ability and performance level, and is a risk factor for injuries. Counting calories provides a false sense of control and ties you down to an inadequate calorie limit for your body to function optimally. Diets not only restrict how much you eat, but also what you eat, limiting intake to certain types of foods, which increases the likelihood of nutrition deficiency and takes away the ability to listen to your body for its hunger and fullness cues and its necessary cravings. This also creates food rules in terms of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” (i.e. “I can’t eat too many carbohydrates”, “eating fat makes me fat”, “I can’t eat before 10am”, “I am not allowed to snack”), perpetuating a poor relationship with food. In turn, this leads to disordered eating patterns that completely ignore your body’s needs. Calorie restriction can interfere with your metabolism and hormone levels, which can end up affecting your body not only while you are dancing, but for years to come after you retire or change your eating habits.

    Dieting can also lead to mental side effects like loss of concentration and negative self talk. It takes away the ability to eat intuitively and practice self love and gratitude towards our body. Ballet classes and rehearsals become harder to get through both physically and mentally from the decrease in energy and the focus that is placed on your body’s desire for sustenance. Dieting focuses on your physical appearance as a proof of self discipline or failure, and broken food rules lead to guilt and shame if  you slip up. When your body does not have enough energy available to carry out its required tasks, it will up-regulate your hunger signals, especially towards sweet foods. The stress of not allowing yourself to eat certain foods can drive you to obsess over those foods and overeat them once they are available. When this happens, it is so easy to fall into self-criticism and a feeling of distrust around food choices. When things don’t go according to plan, it can make you feel anxious and draw your attention away from the big picture and long term goals. Ultimately, it takes away trust of your body and its cues

    This is not the most fun, positive topic to talk about, but it needs to be addressed. Its messy, ugly, and often fought to be kept hidden, especially in the performing arts. Almost every dancer has struggled with their physical appearance, no matter how “perfect” their body is, and this is perpetuated by the nutritional information, lack of guidance, and negligence in addressing issues such as a dancer’s body image and relationship with food. This post is meant to bring awareness to diet culture in our current society as well as in the realm of dance, but there is a way to change this. The alternative is eating intuitively with a holistic approach in relation to the nourishment of the body and the mind. It meets your energy and nutrition needs through foods that also make you feel comfortable, satisfies, inspired, and fulfilled, and gives your body the fuel it needs to thrive. It involves approaching eating with kindness and curiosity, and tears down food rules to allow for body awareness and mindfulness to happen. Intuitive eating allows you as an individual to listen to your cravings and needs and empowers you to make your own food choices and develop compassion and love for your body. I cannot wait to share more about intuitive eating and a mindful approach to food on the next post!  

     

     

  • Finding Middle Ground in Nutrition

    I opened the recommended articles search on my phone to a bombardment of write-ups ranging from how a vegan diet will make you live longer to why adopting a meat and dairy heavy keto diet will help you lose weight and gain vitality. There is research pinning sugar as the culprit for all disease, that all fat causes health decline, grains cause bloating and leaky gut, high carbohydrate diets are what our bodies were created to consume, and that a diet high in protein and fat is what our earliest ancestors ate and is therefore the most optimal way to eat. Is chocolate bad for you or is it a superfood? Are eggs the best source of complete protein or are they single handedly the worst cause of high cholesterol and heart disease? All of this information is enough to make anyone’s head spin out of control and cause a “heck with it” attitude towards food. We live in a world of conflicting information and extremes, and nutrition is not an exception.

    There are several factors that lead to conflicting nutritional information including how studies are created and funded, money in advertising, and lobbying. While these more political topics are important to note, I am not going to address them in more detail here. The second factor is you – you as an individual, who has different needs, taste buds, allergies, cravings, likes, metabolism, body type and composition, and DNA than anyone else. We also vary from one another based on factors like our upbringing, ethnicity, geographical location, gender, energy output, goals, and age. And finally we ourselves change overtime, so what you need nutritionally is going to change based on your stage in life, activity level, stress levels, and so on. So why wouldn’t your diet also reflect these differences as well? Bio-Individuality goes along this line and implies that since every body is different, there is not one diet that fits everyone. This also means that there are very few blanket statements in nutrition that can be applied to MOST people.

    Intuitive eating has become a buzz-word topic over the past few years and connects to this concept of bio-individuality. It is not a diet plan and does not rely on willpower or deprivation, but intuitive eating is choosing what to eat in the moment and what makes sense for your body. It can help establish a trust with your body and its cues and foster a healthy relationship with food. Our bodies are amazing and were made to tell us what it needs to function at its best. This is the overarching philosophy of eating that has helped me combat food rules, and approach food and my body in a wholesome way. At first, it might feel like a lot of work in terms of taking the time, energy, and mental space to tune into your body, fight the diet culture reminders that might pop up, and give your body what it needs and wants. This process might seem slow, and even frustrating at times, but ultimately leads to balanced, middle-ground approach to eating. This is a topic that we will definitely explore later.

    Finding common ground in nutritional information is an important unifying factor that can give us all a baseline to then explore our own personal food sketch.

    In general, whole foods are the way to go. Whole foods are often described as one ingredient foods, tomatoes, almonds, oats, strawberries, spinach, black beans, rice, and olives – the list goes on. Some of these foods have to undergo some sort of process to become edible, like wheat, oats, beans, and lentils, and others are processed to make a different form of the food, like olive oil or dried herbs. Some “processed” foods can even be good for you, think fermentation like in sauerkraut, or sprouting grains, which makes them easier to digest and take on a slightly different nutritional profiles. There are also growing sections in the grocery store with brands that make packaged foods made with the exact ingredients that you could pick up in a store and make for yourself.

    Then, there are foods that are not the best choice for a nutritionally optimal diet, and are best consumed on a less often basis. These are the processed foods that you think of when you imagine packaged food, fast food, and sometimes restaurant food. They are foods that have a laundry list of ingredients that are unidentifiable and are often laden with sugars, dyes, artificial flavors, chemicals, additives, food stabilizers, excessive amounts of salt etc. While these are often super delicious, they also don’t always add a whole lot of nutritional benefit. I think it’s important to not label foods as “good” or “bad”, but rather to see them as percentages of your diet. It’s totally great to have that cake or ice cream as a treat that feeds your soul, and truly enjoy those foods that you love in a restaurant on occasion. Deprivation and setting up foods as “off limits” often feed a binge/guilt/diet cycle – more on this in a later post. But it’s also good to keep balance in mind.

    EAT PLANTS. Plant based foods are some of the most nutrient dense foods, and are what supply our bodies with so many important micronutrients that just aren’t found anywhere else. This definitely does not mean that you have to eat plant based, but it is important to include a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, seeds, and legumes in your diet. If you do choose to eat plant based, it is important to note that there are certain micronutrients that are harder to get, like iron, B-12, and Omega 3s, that require diligence to ensure that you are getting adequate amounts in your system. Most of all, eat a balanced, well-rounded diet. I am totally guilty of eating the same things over and over again. Part of it is convenience and the fact that my grocery list can take up less headspace, but different foods have different nutrient profiles with essential vitamins and nutrients for our bodies. Eating seasonally and trying new recipes and new foods really helps me with this.

    Just because something is good for you doesn’t mean that more is better. There are some pretty crazy ways of eating out there that promote only eating one or two foods or types of foods for a period of time, including juice “cleanses”, as the optimal way to eat. Not only does this do away with the whole balance thing, it can also promote definicencies, disruption to your gut, and food rules that lead to diet cycling, it can actually be quite dangerous for your body.

    Water and hydration really are important. This is one of those reminders that might make you think “ugh” and reach for your water bottle as you are reading this, but hydration from water, not coffee or tea, is important for bodily functions like digestion, waste removal, protecting your joints and tissues. Our hydration levels impact so many of our functional systems in our bodies, so take a sip of that water, and add some lemon, lime, cucumber, or other fruit to make it even more tasty if you like.

    Lastly, nutrition is not just about what you eat. You fuel your body with relationships, home life, education, physical activity, work, spirituality and everything else that you surround yourself with. You could have the most “on point” diet and yet still feel unsatisfied. This concept of balance is so important as it relates to food and lifestyle. It’s something that will be constantly fluctuating and will involve continual feedback from your body, but I believe that over all, it is what leads to a well-rounded and intuitive approach to life.

    I hope this post provided some interesting topics to think about as you start to assess where you are in your relationship to food and how you eat. While sifting through all of this conflicting information on food and nutrition, I hope that you can start to see that there are some core intentions that we can all agree on. Ultimately, it is most important to take an intuitive look at your body in exploring your bio-individuality. This is the start a nutrition series where we will take a deeper look at topics such as the difference between dieting and healthy eating, how to fuel your body as a dancer or pre-professional student, and what role each macronutrient plays in your body, and so much more. I am so excited to dive deeper into these topics with you!