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Guest Article: Nutrition and Balanced Eating

Welcome back to Science in Dance Blogs for 2020. We are kicking off with a guest article from Stefanie of Aus Dancers Oversears. Enjoy and please leave your feedback and comments as always!

New Year’s Resolutions

There’s no way of escaping advertisements, magazine articles, and social media posts about what we should do better next year. What will eventually bring us the ultimate body (what’s that anyway?), and why we need to cut out more, or other foods in the new year. The one-size-fits-all training programs and diets... and who’s immune to this kind of input? Well, the informed dancer can be.

There’s a couple of basic processes in the athletic body that are very specific, and have been for hundreds and thousands of years. They usually function quite differently to the way media, and especially some media celebrities who feel entitled to, present it. Communicating science isn’t labelled ’cool’, whereas non- existent, easy-to-fix solutions are. The first one would work in your body, short- and long-term, the latter wouldn’t. Furthermore, the latter will make you feel a failure in the overwhelming majority of cases, over and over again. Whereas actual knowledge of your body and its functions will make you feel empowered. How to get there, you ask? Let’s start here:

Nutrition-wise, fad diets that are destined to make you fail have been designed in abundance, especially at this time of the year, as they support a whole industry making you believe they have ’the solution’, and earning a fortune from it. However, the only solution ever, is to get to know your body.

So, here we go, with the first 2 macronutrients, and the ones that normally come with the biggest heap of misinformation for dancers:

1) Carbohydrates (CHO): The primary source of fuel for the active body. From the muscles to the brain, simple carbohydrates, i.e. glucose, are the nutrient that make everything work most efficiently, that is allowing you to dance at high intensity and master huge training loads, while feeling good at the same time. CHO have a notoriously bad reputation – just not in biomedical and exercise science, physiology, biology, or nutrition. This reputation stems from guidelines and recommendations that have been put together to address the general population. These days, the majority of the general population is overweight and battles a lot concomitant illnesses like diabetes type 2, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome, due to – wait for it – inactivity. They actually eat too many carbohydrates. But let’s just put this into context: the general population couldn’t be further from a dancer. Which is exactly why you should not apply to your body the same as what’s recommended for someone with a 9 to 5 office job, and 30 mins of exercise twice a week. Make sense? We do hope so! So, what is the matter now with CHO for dancers? It is, again, the context that can make them more, or less preferable in certain situations, but they are not inherently ’good’ or ’bad’, and once again, they are the body’s preferred source in order to sustain dancing. As a dancer, your body works at its best when being fuelled sufficiently with CHO throughout the day. Preferably a mixture of more complex as well as simpler carbohydrates...simple ones if you need a quick boost towards, or after the end of a class/rehearsal, or during a performance; and more complex if you have time to allow for digestion, for some this can be a one-hour lunch-break, for example. The body has a fantastic storage of CHO in our muscles, plus a tiny bit in our liver, it’s called glycogen. Glycogen, when used for movement, is broken down to glucose. However, the storage is limited, and this limit is reached a lot earlier than most dancers assume; your storage is likely to be depleted by the end of your morning class. Time to refill. And depending on the length of your break: If it’s only 3 mins plus a change of shoes and studio, grab some simple CHO like dried fruits, even jelly beans are good, or have a fruit juice squash to keep you going in CHO-burning mode. Your body will thank you as it won’t feel stressed while you continue dancing. Same in the afternoon, around 90mins after your lunch at the latest, the stores will be depleted again. If you have more time, let’s say 15 mins, you can add a small protein pulse and might want to reach for some fresh fruits dipped in nut butter. With the protein provided in the nut butter, your body will thank you for a small protein pulse and immediately start repairing your muscles. And if you have time for a real lunch, whole grains, veggies and legumes are your best friend.

2) Protein (PRO): While CHO delivers energy for fuelling your movement and many metabolic processes, protein actually has a more structural role. It is part of a constant muscle degradation (catabolism) and muscle repair/ adaptation (anabolism). Many people tend to think that protein intake translates into ’bulkiness’, however, this could not be further from the truth: young and adolescent dancers can require intakes equal to that of a bodybuilder (g PRO per kg bodyweight), which is exclusively used to lengthen the muscles according to general growth, as well as adapt to increases in training load and volume. Adult dancers still require a lot more protein than the average population, or the amateur dancer, but the exact amount is dependent on their schedule, goals, and body composition. Body composition we hear you ask? Yes. A lot of dancers put unnecessary stress onto their bodies by trying to keep the lowest weight possible, whatever the method to achieve it. Typically, this is done by restricted food intake or cutting out food groups. Overlooked, more often than not, is the fact that restriction of food intake is frequently accompanied by our muscles becoming resistant to protein intake. This in turn means that the more restricted the food intake, the more protein would be needed to actually overcome this resistance, and allow your muscles to adapt to training again. But we don’t really read about that on social media or in magazines – rather we are told to simply buy the newest, protein-enriched foods and all will be fine. This doesn’t make you an informed dancer, this doesn’t make you aware of your body’s true needs. Your body might be happy about a bit

more PRO, however, a lot of such products have never been tested, we do not know about their actual absorption qualities like we do with real foods, but what we do know is that most of them are mixed with a lot of additives, and often also saturated fats. Most of these added components are not really necessary, hence making these foods more energy-dense than nutrient-dense. Not exactly smart.

And then there’s Veganuary and the Game Changers documentary – beside many other currently advertised ’miracle diets’. Keto anyone?! Appetite suppressing lollies?! Time restricted-feeding?! All right, let’s cut through the noise.

  1. Veganuary and the Game Changers documentary: As popular as veganism has become, going vegan as a dancer and doing it all on your own, is often accompanied by unexpected deficiencies, making you feel miserable and ending up further from your health goal than you’ve ever been before. Eating a more plant-based diet can have true health benefits though. But it requires informed choices. You need to know about the different mechanisms of nutrient absorption from plant-based versus animal foods. You need to know about how to compensate for losses of nutrients through cutting out animal products. Many dancers struggle a lot with the amount/ volume of plant-based foods they need to consume in order to meet their daily energy needs, and a huge percentage end up in low in energy availability and with negative effects on their metabolism, body composition, and also their mood and performance quality. And not everyone is able to thrive and strive on an exclusively plant-based diet: Our bodies are unique, and this is why some will feel better on a more plant- based, or even vegan diet, while others definitely won’t. And that is ok. The majority of us are probably concerned about environmental and ethical aspects of our diets, and that’s great. That’s also why it can be worth a try if you wish to reduce your consumption of animal products, or your environmental impact. Just don’t do it unsupervised, and don’t be tricked into believing that because it worked for someone you look up to, it will inevitably work for you too.

  2. Keto diets: Not for dancers. There’s literally zero scientific evidence that could support this kind of diet in dancers or athletes. Even worse, while there is plenty of evidence that a ketogenic diet (primarily protein and fats, next to no CHO) can be beneficial for patients with epileptic seizures; in young healthy adults, this diet has produced some serious negative effects, like damage to the heart, beside a large number of health parameters which got worse during the duration of the ketogenic diet (controlled study in Scandinavia). For dancers, in their all day-life, a physical activity of medium- to high-intensity in a state of ketosis (like produced through the ketogenic diet), will inevitably slow them down and disable peak performance: In order to use fat as fuel, the body needs to metabolize the fat and turn it into glucose. What?! Yes, hello again carbohydrates! The metabolic transformation from fat into CHO is a process that actually comes at a high cost – measured in oxygen needs. Oxygen needs for using fat as fuel are much higher than for using CHO as fuel. The more oxygen you need to dance, the more tiring and exhaustive you will perceive the steps/ choreography. Your immune system will be put under a lot of stress too. And, last but not least, within a world that battles a high percentage of disordered eating amongst its dancers, the ketogenic diet is just another fad diet that is extreme, and extreme diets have never been shown to work long- term. Most of those taking part in such an extreme way of eating end up unhappier, and also un-healthier than before. It’s not worth it, you’re definitely too precious to be fooled by populistic, believe-based claims. You deserve better.

Being the best, healthiest and strongest dancer you can be requires to apply the basic scientific principles, to look at every dancer as an individual, and tailor training, recovery, and nutrition to the individual needs. Make 2020 the year that allows you to be the best you can be!! You’re unique and that’s your biggest asset!

More from AusDancersOverseas: (new nutrition section launches Jan 13, 2020) social media: @ausdancersoverseas

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