(From the July/August 2015 edition of American Dancer Magazine)
Like all power athletes, dancers should follow a sports nutrition plan that supports optimal body composition, energy needs, and health. But unlike other athletes, dancers also prefer to maintain a compact body with minimal mass.
Because of these diverse goals, it can be difficult for dancers to make the right dietary choices. In this article, I’ll offer suggestions for making simple nutritional changes to address three common problems for dancers: losing body fat, maintaining muscle, and eating for energy, health, and enjoyment. Once you evaluate your goals, you can use the suggestions below to address problems in your current nutrition plan.
LOSING BODY FAT
In theory, losing body fat is simple–you can exercise more, eat less, or both. For most dancers, increasing activity is a poor strategy. There are two reasons for this. The first is that daily dance training is intense, and exercising more takes away from valuable recovery time that helps to prevent injury or overtraining. The second issue is that, due to the stop-and-go nature of dance training, the energy requirements are disappointingly low. This means that it would take an unrealistic amount of additional dancing to see meaningful changes in body fat.
Endurance exercise, such as running or cycling, can be effective for fat loss, but it can be time consuming and hard on the body. For dancers, a more realistic strategy is to continue to emphasize dance-specific training and make small dietary changes.
Although eating less is the most important change a dancer can make to lose body fat, avoid the temptation to make drastic reductions to how much you eat. Cutting calories severely can result in muscle loss, low energy, and inadequate intake of nutrients to support health. Losing body fat should be a gradual process.
The ideal rate of fat loss depends on many factors, but for most athletic dancers, it’s safe to lose about 1 lb. per week. This can be easily achieved by eating about 500 fewer calories each day. Simple changes include eating smaller portions; drinking water, tea, or coffee instead of soda or alcohol; skipping dessert; or using less oil or butter in cooking.
Finally, although it’s become popular to follow low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets for fat loss, there’s no particular advantage of either. The bottom line is that all diets are effective if calories are reduced.
Although you may not be interested in putting on more muscle, it’s important to retain the muscle you already have. Dancers who train hard while following low-calorie diets are at risk for losing lean body mass, which has a negative impact on performance and appearance. The good news is that high-intensity dance training helps dancers retain lean mass, as do other intense activities like resistance training, plyometrics, and interval training.
The dietary strategy to retain lean mass should emphasize protein. This is particularly important when following a lower calorie diet. The protein requirement for athletes is greater than it is for sedentary populations. For dancers, daily consumption of 0.75 gram to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is optimal. This means that a 120 lb. dancer should aim to eat at least 90 grams of protein a day. Examples of high-protein foods include meat, fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and for convenience, whey protein shakes.
EATING FOR ENERGY, ENJOYMENT, AND HEALTH
After planning for protein requirements, the foods you eat should provide balanced support for energy, eating satisfaction, and health needs. For intense dance training, the primary fuel is carbohydrate, so dancers who struggle with low energy should be sure to eat enough starch from grains or potatoes or sugar from fruit.
For eating satisfaction, select the foods you enjoy. Although some athletes find their performance improves on a diet rich in carbohydrate, others notice no difference and prefer to eat relatively more fat. Once energy needs are met, eating the foods you enjoy will make it more likely that you adhere to a long-term dietary plan.
Remaining dietary decisions should be made to address specific health goals. For example, many dancers fail to meet certain vitamin or mineral requirements, so diets that include natural foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, should be emphasized. For dancers who struggle with GI problems, it can be helpful to reduce the amount of fiber, milk, fruit, and fruit juices in the diet. Although white rice has limited nutritional value, as an easy-to-digest source of energy, it’s an excellent addition to a dancer’s diet.
Developing a dance nutrition plan may seem overwhelming, but the most effective strategies are often the easiest to implement. When making dietary decisions, be goal-directed, make practical and realistic changes, be patient through the process, and enjoy the success your efforts bring.