As a dancer for 18 years, I was always interested in the best food options to fuel my body and stay healthy, strong and in shape. I had concerns about whether I was providing adequate nutrition to meet the strenuous physical demands I was putting on myself, while maintaining an acceptable dancer’s physique. Today, as a nutrition professional, I can look back at the choices I made and realize what I might have done differently. I hope to pass some of that insight on to the next generation of dancers and fill the gap in knowledge that existed during my dancing days.
It is important to recognize that dancers just like the rest of the population, need to include nutritious options to provide each of the major sources of fuel that our bodies utilize. Cutting out any of these sustaining compounds can really undermine your goals as a dancer. It can be confusing with so many different opinions telling us what we should or shouldn’t eat. It is my goal to shed some light on this issue and clarify the misinformation we are often subjected to.
First of all, what are the major sources of energy that our bodies need and why is it important to consume each of them regularly? The three main types of fuel that we ideally obtain through our diets include carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Yes dancers, I said fats! A healthy combination of these nutrients can work together to provide energy, build muscles and bones, prevent fatigue and improve performance.
Carbohydrates have been given a bad rap in the recent past, thanks to the low-carb craze and fads such as the Atkins diet. While an over-consumption of carbohydrates can potentially lead to weight gain, including this fuel in our daily dietary intake is essential. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our brains and also act as a fast, efficient fuel for our muscles. As one of the most critical organs in our bodies, the brain requires a certain amount of caloric energy to direct us in the daily functions of living. The thought and exertion utilized during dancing puts additional demands on our bodies and brains.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that about 45-65% of the total calories we consume each day should come from carbohydrates. Dancers are encouraged to lean towards the higher end of this range, due to their increased energy needs. Including carbohydrates at each meal, as well as incorporating them into snacks is a good way to reach our needs and keep our bodies well-energized during dance classes and rehearsals. It is best to consume a majority of complex carbohydrates, which can be found in foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables with the skin intact, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and even popcorn. These types of carbohydrates include dietary fiber, which helps aid in proper digestion and also keeps us feeling full longer; an asset to dancers trying to maintain a healthy weight. Limit the amount of simple carbohydrates, such as those found in cakes, cookies, pastries, and other foods containing refined sugar.
The second type of energy sustaining nutrient needed by our bodies is protein. Protein functions to build bones and tissues, produce hormones and enzymes involved in energy metabolism, and maintain proper fluid balance within our bodies. Protein is also important in maintaining healthy muscles and helps to repair the body after dance classes and rehearsals. The USDA recommends that we consume approximately 10-30% of our total calories each day in the form of protein. Another way to reach your recommended protein intake is to ingest about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. As an active dancer, you may choose to consume slightly more protein than this, but be sure not to exceed 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, as this amount of protein can have adverse health effects. In order to determine your weight in kilograms, simply divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
Some examples of foods that are rich in protein include chicken, beef, fish, eggs, peanut butter, milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts, legumes and beans, and soy products. It is helpful to consume protein at multiple points throughout the day to help regulate blood sugar levels and prevent potential fatigue. While snacking throughout the day can be a healthy practice, protein helps us to continue feeling full between meals and snacks, so we will be less likely to overindulge. It is also recommended to consume protein in tandem with carbohydrates, since together they help to promote muscle synthesis.
Finally, our third source of dietary fuel comes from fat. Dancers need some fat in their diets, and female athletes particularly do not want to drop below 12% body fat. Fat has a variety of important roles such as insulating our bodies, aiding in hormone production, providing shock absorption and cushioning for our organs, lining our nerves, and supplying energy during extended periods of exercise. According to the USDA, we should consume about 25-35% of our total daily calories in the form of fat. We should strive to consume a majority of healthy fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while limiting our intake of saturated fats. Trans fats should be avoided, as they are very unhealthy for our bodies. While fats have a number of important functions, too much fat can of course lead to undesirable weight gain as well as contributing to other health concerns. Therefore, a diet that is moderately low in fat is optimal. Fat can be obtained from a number of different food sources. Some examples include ground beef, cream cheese, butter, oil, nuts, ice cream, 1%, 2% or whole milk, avocados, and many desserts.
Ultimately, our goal as dancers is to maintain optimal levels of energy to support us during classes, rehearsals and performances and prevent injury due to fatigue or poor muscular health. Consuming a diet that includes plenty of complex carbohydrates, adequate protein and a moderate amount of fat will help us to achieve these goals. Eating 5-6 small meals throughout the day is a great way for dancers to meet their nutritional needs while stabilizing energy levels and blood sugar. This also promotes a feeling of satisfaction with regards to hunger, without causing us to feel bloated and over-stuffed while dancing. It is my hope that this information will empower you to take steps towards becoming a healthy, well-balanced dancer and that the nutritional habits you begin to build today will serve you throughout your dance career.
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