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The first thing I always try to emphasize is that your food needs are completely unique and personal to you. And I’ll qualify this by adding that this fact should never be used as a justification to restrict or undereat. 

When I was in college, a friend and I had really similar body types. We would talk about what we were or weren’t eating and what we thought was working. Our goal was always to lose weight because we were both convinced our body’s weren’t “right” for ballet. 

She and I validated for one another that perhaps we just couldn’t eat like other people and needed to try and eat less or more limited food options. At the time, if someone had told me that I probably, in fact, needed to be eating much more than what I was eating, I don’t think I would have believed them.

However, that’s what I’m going to tell you. If your portions have gotten smaller over the years or you’ve convinced yourself that less food is better, it’s time to rethink your approach.

fuel needs as a dancer

Plan to have 3 meals and 2 snacks each day.

This is pretty standard. The idea is that having this plan will encourage you to eat consistently throughout the day. To fit in 3 meals and 2 snacks, you’ll have to eat every few hours. By eating at that frequency, you’re ensuring adequate fuel. 

If you follow your body’s intuitive cues, you’ll notice that on some days this may vary. However, if you’re in a busy dance schedule with hours of classes and rehearsals, it can be very easy to get disconnected from hunger and fullness cues. On those days, your energy levels and recovery will be aided by some proactive eating. As with all things, it’s about finding your personal balance.

Within your meals and snacks, incorporate protein, carbs, and fat. Each macronutrient is helping your body to accomplish essential functions. Omitting or restricting any of them can have negative consequences. 

Your portions should be generous. I hear a lot of concern from my dancer clients that they don’t know what a portion should look like. When you have the opportunity to eat a more substantial meal (often times this is at breakfast or dinner for dancers), you should take advantage. That means filling your plate. Check out these plate visuals for some guidance.

Pay attention to how your food is making you feel.

First, I’ll point out that if you’re not eating consistently, your digestion will suffer and eating anything can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable. This just reinforces the earlier point to eat consistently. 

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Once you know your food habits are relatively consistent, pay attention to how different food choices make you feel. You can include all foods in your performance-focused dance nutrition plan. The timing of different food options may have to be more strategic.

For example, if you love cookies and want to include them in your busy dancing days, you might be tempted to eat them as a stand-alone snack. For some of you, that quick spike and drop in blood sugar can leave you feeling anxious and jittery. That doesn’t mean you don’t eat the cookie. Instead, have it after a complete meal of protein, carbs, and fat. 

Recognize how stress is impacting your needs.

If you really tune in, you might discover that the energy you have is quite clearly tied to the frequency and consistency of your food intake. That being said, dancers have an uncanny ability to run on adrenaline instead of food.

When you’re stressed or anxious, which is a space where many dancers find themselves within high-pressure dance environments, your adrenal glands dump adrenaline into your system so you can run or stay and fight. It’s a survival response that can’t see the difference between feeling stressed out in a rehearsal and experiencing something life threatening.

In the short term, stress can shut down appetite, but over time it often leads to overeating. If you feel like you’re often feeling stressed in your dance environment, consider the impact that might be having on your hunger and energy. Try to manage your stress, and that can help you establish more consistent energy and eating patterns.

For optimal energy, dancers also benefit from honoring “practical hunger.” Read this post for the full concept.

Ignore how your friends eat. 

Yes, I said it. It doesn’t matter how anyone around you is eating. There is a greater prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating among dancers, which is great evidence that your dance friends could be significantly underfueling. 

You can’t compare yourself to someone who might be truly harming their body by not eating enough. Even if your fellow dancers aren’t causing harm to themselves, their needs are different from yours. Comparison won’t help. It’s essential to focus on you, to provide yourself with generous portions, and to trust that eating adequately will allow you to feel your best and do your best dancing.

Check out this related post :   Herb Chicken and Asparagus : Dancer Recipe Inspiration with Adrianna de Svastich

Aim for variety in your eating plan.

We all get into food ruts or habits where we’re eating the same things day after day. For dancers, this can sometimes stem from fear of eating other things. You might be worried that if you change your habits your body might change in ways you don’t want it to. 

However, by incorporating all different kinds of foods and making simple switches, you’ll be in a better position to meet your nutrient needs. For example, if you’re eating oatmeal for breakfast most days and topping it with sunflower seeds, maybe you switch to pumpkin seeds or crushed almonds for a while. Each nut and seed is providing you with different benefits, so simply switching a nutty topping gives you more well-rounded nutrition.

Allow for flexibility and fun in your food choices. 

You’ll find yourself in situations that feel less than ideal when it comes to food. We all have preferences, and when you’re at a friend’s house, a party, celebrating a holiday, or traveling, you have to find ways to nourish yourself that might be out of the norm.

This is where giving yourself the freedom to be flexible is going to support you to continue to give your body what it needs. There are ways to make this easier as you work towards full flexibility. 

For example, if you’re going to a friend’s for a food-centric gathering, offer to bring something. This way you’ll have at least 1 dish that you know works for you. 

When you travel, pack on-the-go snacks and even mini meal options so you are able to feel more balanced with the eating out that will inevitably be part of the travel experience.

And don’t forget, food should be fun, joy, and pleasure. If you have disconnected from those parts of the food experience, start to explore your food relationship.

If you’re struggling to establish food autonomy and body confidence, reach out. I’d love to support you through a free coaching call to see if health, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching is a good fit for your needs.

Understanding Your Fuel Needs as a Dancer

Jess Spinner

Jess is a former professional ballet dancer turned Holistic Health, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Coach for high level dancers. She founded The Whole Dancer in 2015 after identifying a greater need for balance, wellness and support in the dance world. Since The Whole Dancer was founded, Jess has worked with 100's of dancers worldwide at top companies and schools. She has been featured in or written for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Pointe Magazine, and Dance Spirit Magazine.

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