Food for fitness - the SMART way.
How to achieve and maintain your goals and avoid the 'skinny fat' trap
No-one is under the allusion that the dance world is judgement free, or that those in the industry (or hoping to be) aren't under constant pressure to meet the physical standards expected of them as dancers, and yet many dancers believe that the only way to achieve these demands is to sacrifice their energy and strength, often putting their bodies under huge strain and greatly increasing the risk of injury, bone fractures and illness due to not meeting the bodies necessary requirements. Consequently, despite having the lowest average bodyweight, dancers have one of the highest levels of body fat amongst athletes; the pressure to stay slim is leading many dancers to starve themselves of food groups that a healthy body requires, forcing their body to retain and store fat as a protective mechanism, ie. 'starvation mode', the drawbacks of this type of weight management far outweighs any benefits. This kind of dieting/food restriction only leads to a loss of muscle, muscle tone and athletic faculty in order to get thinner, resulting in the body-type that has been termed 'skinny fat'
In truth, no dancer will ever completely meet the body standards upheld by the industry - just as no model will ever have the exact proportions of the 'Barbie figure' ( ...thank goodness!) BUT if you learn to work with your body, instead of against it, eat intelligently and fuel yourself with foods that aid metabolism, muscle repair, bone health and provide you with ample energy, you can achieve a lean body whilst keeping yourself in peak physical condition. The key is to focus on body composition rather than weightloss. You should aim for fit, healthy and slim, rather than weak, tired and 'skinny fat'
1. Keep it rounded and regular.
Firstly, don't ever completely cut out a food group, just like every muscle in the body has a purpose, each food group provides your body with valuable nutrition. If you are vegetarian, extra steps must be taken to ensure you're getting an adequate amount of Protein, Iron, Vitamin B, Zinc and other essential nutrients.
Many dancers have been programmed into thinking Carbohydrates are the enemy, when in reality, they're essential for providing your muscles with Glycogen and preventing muscle fatigue, which is incredibly important for dancers, and any athlete. Healthy carbohydrates won't make you gain weight, it's only when you're consuming more 'food energy' than you're expending that the body breaks down and stores carbs, hence the motto 'Everything in moderation' should be your new best friend! Equally important are fats, which help you with vitamin absorption and - contrary to popular belief - good fats help you lose weight, not gain it.
Our recommended sources of Carbohydrates and healthy fats are:
- Avocado (Good fats)
- Bananas (Carbohydrates)
- Nuts (Good fats)
- Brown Rice (Carbohydrates)
Secondly, regular and consistent eating is essential for healthy digestion, skipping meals won't help you slim down, and studies have shown that those who don't eat or eat very little for one meal only eat more later on, and it's usually unhealthy food that you end up indulging on! So keep your meals healthily proportioned and regular, it will make you feel good, and give you more will-power when it comes to turning down that piece of cake! And if you really want to optimize how your body uses food, 4-6 smaller meals a day is a much better alternative to three larger meals; it keeps your metabolism high, maintains your energy levels, (rather than the large fluctuation you get between meals with breakfast/lunch/dinner) which means you don't go into starvation mode, and instead keep burning off your food, and you're not using it all up trying to process/digest a big meal before or during dancing (never a good idea!).
2. Protein for active bodies!
Foods high in protein not only help with muscle repair, they also require more energy for the body to process and breakdown, thus burning more fat. This means that someone eating a high protein snack with 100 calories burns roughly 30 calories just digesting their food, as opposed to a normal 100 calorie non-protein snack only burning 5-10 calories. In addition, muscle naturally burns more calories than fat, and as protein preserves muscle, you're burning more calories even whilst sedentary.
Our top picks for healthy sources of protein:
- Chicken (lean cuts, no skin)
- Turkey (lean cuts)
- Pumpkin and Sunflower Seeds
So... unfortunately there's no magic superfood that will give you Misty Copeland's legs (tragically). However, mother nature still has some kick-ass edible wonders up her sleeve that are bursting with nutrients and helpful chemicals (the good type) that can hugely aid in keeping your body trim and healthy! -
3. Natural metabolism boosters/fat burners.
Antioxidants and Vitamin C both contain chemical properties that are conducive to weightloss, Vitamin C promotes the production of Carnitine in the body which oxidizes fatty acids (breaks them down/burns fat) and the antioxidant EGCG inhibits fat cell development and fat oxidization. In addition, chillies contain capsaicin, a chemical that converts food energy into heat, meaning it gets burned up rather than stored. Incorporate foods with these and other helpful chemical properties into your diet.
- Green tea (EGCG Antioxidant)
- Oranges (Vitamin C)
- Chillies (Capsaicin)
- Lemons (Vitamin C)
- Mangoes (Vitamin C and Antioxidants)
- Garlic (Allicin: aids reduction of saturated fats and cholesterol in the body)
4. Fluids and Fiber!Dehydration is a serious concern for dancers and other active individuals, and one that can have serious consequences. When you're dancing or working out your muscles produce heat as a by-product, and in order to keep your body at a healthy temperature you're reliant on cooling down through the evaporation of sweat from the skin. So not only is water essential for us during a workout, but it also helps maintain muscle tone (just what we wanted to hear!) by assisting muscles in their ability to contract, and it lubricates your joints, reducing muscle and joint soreness when exercising.
To top it all off water is a key element in the process of burning calories (an adequate supply of water is needed for the chemical reactions to function efficiently), hence, dehydration slows down the fat-burning
process. So make sure you're getting enough water throughout the day by keeping a water bottle with you and having a glass with each meal. If however, you're just not good at drinking lots of water there are other alternatives for keeping your fluids up; try eating fruits and vegetables that have a high water content or have a cup of soup as one of your smaller meals.
Finally, increasing your daily fibre intake can help you prevent weight gain and quite possibly encourage weight loss. Researchers have found that people who increase their fibre intake generally lose weight whereas those with less fibre in their diets tend to gain weight. Adding fibre-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains also helps you feel satisfied on fewer calories, not to mention it's positive effects on digestive health.
Our recommendations for fluid and fibre rich foods are:
- Pears (Fibre and water)
- Apples (Fibre and water)
- Legumes - esp. Kidney beans (Fibre)
- Melons/Cantaloupe - especially watermelons (Water)
- Broccoli (Fibre and water)
- Tomatoes (Water)
These pointers, combined with an active, balanced lifestyle will help you to achieve and maintain a healthy, fit body whilst providing you with enough energy to support a highly active lifestyle.
Be careful not to get too caught up in the perfectionism and physical pressures that are an unfortunate by-product of the dance world, remember what dance is all about; the beauty of expression through movement - art, freedom, passion, and most importantly fun! ;)