Frequently Asked Questions – Nutrition for Dancers
Why is good nutrition important for a dancer?
As a dancer, having the right amount of ‘fuel’ on board is essential to perform at your best. A healthy diet will optimise energy stores, enable effective training and allow the immune system to fight off infections and illnesses as well as help recovery from injury.
Where does my body get ‘fuel’ or energy from?
The body uses both fat and carbohydrate as ‘fuel’. Much of dance is short bursts of high intensity activity which is mainly fuelled by carbohydrates. These are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Unfortunately, these stores are not large and do not last more that about 11/2 hours of intense activity and so have to be replaced after training or performance (preferably in the first hour after the activity).
For fuel to be released from food and converted into glycogen it has first to be digested and absorbed. Carbohydrates are absorbed by the body at different rates and the absorption rate of certain foods has been graded and is called ‘glycaemic index’ or GI, with foods of low GI taking longer to digest and absorb than those with high GI. However, the absorption rate of a food will change depending on what it is eaten with. On the whole carbohydrates are digested faster than fats, which sit for much longer in the stomach. Therefore, carbohydrates should be the main source of energy before training sessions and performances. The best sources of carbohydrates are wholegrain breads, cereals, pasta, couscous, noodles and rice as these contain more vitamins and minerals than the refined versions, provide essential fibre and will also be absorbed at a slower rate than refined versions and thus release their energy more slowly. However, some quicker absorbed carbohydrate foods can be included to provide a boost such as cereal bars, scones, teacakes, and fruit bars but make sure they are low in fat or else performance will be inhibited.
So long as I am getting enough of the right type of fuel does it matter what I eat?
Yes it does, the quality of the food you eat is as important as the type and amount. Chocolate is likely to give you a ‘quick hit’ – your energy level will be great for a little while but then you may well feel really tired. This is because our bodies don’t just need fuel to run, they also require a good supply of protein and a multitude of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals, which although they are required in much smaller amounts are
nonetheless essential for health and peak performance. As a dancer, protein requirements are slightly higher than the rest of the population, but in reality this does not mean you need massive amounts of it. Have a reasonable portion of a good source of protein at least twice a day – good sources include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt, pulses (beans and lentils) and other vegetarian proteins such as Quorn, tofu, and soya mince. Vitamins and minerals are found in greater amounts in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread, pasta, cereals, milk, dairy products and so these foods, particularly carbohydrate-based foods need to form the bulk of the diet.
How much alcohol can I drink without it affecting my performance?
Alcohol also supplies energy but it is not a good source for dancers as it has negative effects on performance. It lowers the blood sugar, stimulates appetite and affects judgment and reaction times. Also if alcohol replaces
food in the first hour or two after exercise, glycogen refueling cannot occur, and even if food is then eaten the refueling process will be less efficient so fatigue is more likely the next day. Apart from the physical symptoms, a ‘hangover’ will reduce oxygen uptake the next day and again limit performance. And finally, it is extremely difficult to meet carbohydrate targets and avoid the risk of gaining weight as fat unless alcohol intake is well within health guidelines – maximum of 14 units per week for women, 21 units per week for men.
What is a unit of alcohol?
1 unit =
• 280ml (½ pint) of ordinary strength (e.g. 3% Alcohol by volume, ABV) beer, lager or cider
• 180ml (1/3 pt) of strong (e.g. 5% ABV or bottled) lager or cider,
• 25ml (pub measure) of spirits,
• 75ml (13% ABV) or 110ml (9% ABV) of wine,
• 220ml (2/3rds of a bottle) of Alco pop.
Is it OK if I miss breakfast, I’m not good at eating in the morning?
Our bodies adapt to the meal pattern we give them. If we don’t eat breakfast our body will deal with this, but it doesn’t mean that it is ideal for you. Eating breakfast helps concentration during the morning, reduces depression and anxiety, and improves memory and verbal skills. It will also provide essential fuel for morning classes. If you currently don’t eat breakfast start with something
small, fruit and yoghurt for example, and build it up gradually. Aim
to choose from the options below.
What are the best snacks for me to eat?
If breakfast needs to be very early take a snack for later: e.g. cereal bar (look for low fat ones), fruit (fresh or dried), honey or jam sandwich, scone or teacake.
What should I eat exactly and when?
The variety and quality of the food you eat is important. There is also a need for food at regular intervals throughout the day: this can be as three formal meals – breakfast, lunch and evening meal, or as regular meals and snacks – not unplanned continuous ‘grazing’ but planned purposeful regular ‘pit stops’. Have plenty of fruit and vegetables (remember 5-a-day); a good portion of (wholegrain where possible) carbohydrate-based food with each meal such as rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals, or bread, or quinoa; a source of protein such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt, pulses (beans and lentils), or other vegetable protein (e.g. Quorn, tofu and soya mince); a small amount of fat (oil, margarine, butter, or in yoghurt or milk) and keep food such as crisps, sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks to a minimum.
What exactly should I eat? – Meal Ideas
What are the benefits of eating breakfast?
Breakfast provides essential fuel for the morning’s activities, improves concentration, memory and verbal skills, and reduces depression and anxiety.
Choose one of the following options:
Cereal (e.g. weetabix, shreddies, raisin wheats, bran flakes, muesli, porridge),
+Low fat milk or yoghurt,
+Fruit or fruit juice,
Extra boost: dried fruit and/or seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sunflower).
Toast or bagel,
Small amount of butter/spread,
Add: fruit and yoghurt (or have this alone for breakfast).
Best options: poached or boiled eggs, grilled bacon (fat removed), grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, toast.
To refuel and keep you going in the afternoon, preventing injury and early fatigue
Sandwich (extra boost: wholemeal or rye bread) including some protein and some vegetables/salad.
Ham and tomato
Tuna (drained or oil, water etc.) and cucumber + a little salad cream or low fat dressing (rather than mayonnaise)
Sliced hardboiled egg with tomato
Grilled back bacon, lettuce and tomato
Cottage cheese with pineapple
Edam/gouda cheese and salad
Sliced Brie/Camembert and grapes
Mozarella, sliced tomato and basil
Mixed salad with feta cheese and bread roll;
Pasta salad with chicken or tuna and sweet corn;
Rice or quinoa salad with tomato, peppers and diced ham, chicken or tuna. Create your own combinations.
NB. Keep sandwiches and salads cool either in the fridge or a cool bag.
Jacket potato + filling (see Evening Meals below)
Soup (make sure it has some protein e.g. lentils, beans or chicken or have a large portion of yoghurt as well)
Have a piece of fruit or portion of dried fruit
For more carbohydrate: a scone, teacake, some malt loaf or fruit cake.
To replenish energy levels after the day’s demands
As a balanced meal, this should comprise:
• Carbohydrate (potatoes, (brown) rice, (wholemeal) pasta, noodles, couscous), quinoa
• Protein and,
Best cooking methods: Grilling, poaching, stir-frying, steaming (avoid frying in lots of oil).
Tip: Plan meals in advance and do a weekly shop with meals in mind
Jacket potato or Baked sweet potato with filling :-
Tuna and sweetcorn/peppers (easy on mayo),
Chilli con carne/vegetarian chilli,
vegetables (frozen or fresh) and/or side salad.
Stir-fried pork fillet, chicken or tofu with vegetables
Serve with noodles or rice
Pizza – with added vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and sweetcorn (rather than high fat sausages like salami)
Casseroles made with meat/poultry/beans, vegetables and potatoes
Tip: A slow cooker can be useful for these.
Fruit and yoghurt,
Stewed fruit (fresh or dried),
(Occasional cake or sweet/fatty desert)
What should I eat if I go out to dinner?
If you eat out after a performance Chinese, Thai, Italian, French or Indian restaurants will make it easier to choose a balanced meal than the fish and chip shop or the burger outlet. Choose dishes that you know won’t be too oily, and ask for extra bread to boost your carbohydrate if necessary.
– Challis, J, 20014. Nutrition for Dancers, Dance UK Information Sheet, 12.
– Thomas, B & Bishop, J eds., 2007. Manual of Dietetic Practice, 4th Ed. Oxford: Blackwell.