We hear all the time how important it is to eat a balanced diet. Well it’s even more important for our young dancers to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet to give them energy for classes, rehearsals, competitions and recitals. Their calories need to come from a combination of healthy carbohydrates and lean proteins, and fats.
Dancers should follow the food pyramid, or food plate as it is now called, that everyone else follows. One difference between a diet for dancers and a diet for non-athletic children is that the amount of food eaten needs to be tweaked before a workout or performance to compensate for the amount of energy they will use. It’s common practice for our team dancers to have candy right before they take to the stage or take a convention class for a burst of energy. But as soon as they are done, they quickly eat some nuts or a cheese stick to tide them over to the next meal.
Nutritionists now say there are five main food groups on the food plate and recommend eating the following proportions for each food group:
1. Fruits and vegetables (30%)
2. Carbohydrates: found in foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice or corn (30%)
3. Proteins: found in lean meat, fish, poultry or eggs (20%)
4. Milk and dairy products: like cheese, cottage cheese or yogurt (15%)
5. Fats and sugar: butter, oils, sauces, any type of candy, high sugar processed foods (5%)
This may all sound simple, but we’re still talking about kids who may be finicky. There are a few other simple guidelines to live by to improve your dancer’s diet and overall health:
1. Make sure your dancer eats breakfast
2. Combine carbohydrates and proteins in all your meals
3. Eat many small meals throughout the day (preferably 5-6 per day)
4. Drink plenty of water
First – let’s talk breakfast. Just like your momma always said, it’s the most important meal of the day because it jumpstarts your metabolism. My daughter is not a morning person and often doesn’t want to eat breakfast. I usually try to serve her a glass of orange juice and a healthy cereal with whole grains – even if she just takes a few bites. Then I throw a cheese stick in her hand as she runs out the door for the bus. At least I know that she will have energy to start her day and to be focused.
Second, it’s important to combine protein with carbohydrates at all meals for a variety of reasons. Without getting into a scientific explanation, this combination promotes alertness, keeps your dancer from getting hungry as quickly, builds lean muscles and maintains energy levels. Eating just carbs will cause your dancer’s sugar levels to spike, then crash. My daughter becomes hangry when she eats carbs without protein, or if she waits too long to eat.
Healthy carbs for breakfast include oatmeal, whole grain toast, whole grain bagels, whole grain waffles, and whole grain cereal. Are you sensing a pattern here? Stay away from processed or refined carbs such as sugary cereal, white bread or processed bagels. Peanut butter, almond butter or cashew butter pares well with these items. Other proteins to pare with your carbs are: yogurt, cheese, milk, eggs, soymilk, tofu, bacon or sausage (preferable turkey), tuna, nuts, quinoa and beans. Remember — it’s important to pare both carbohydrates and proteins at EVERY meal, not just breakfast.
Now onto meal size. Eating many small meals throughout the day has many benefits. This is one of the best ways to maintain energy levels throughout the day. It’s much easier to do this by planning ahead and packing plenty of healthy snacks to eat between meals, classes or rehearsals. By healthy snacks I mean foods such as fruits, vegetables, yogurt, hummus, cheese, nuts and seeds. Again, make sure you have protein in each meal/snack. See Kristen’s February blog for more ideas.
Eating smaller amounts of food at one time will also avoid that “too full” feeling. This is especially important if your athlete is dancing right after their meal so they don’t feel bloated or sluggish.
If your dancer wants a snack or dessert, fruits are a great choice rather than high sugar foods like cookies, cakes or pies. Healthy fruits include blueberries, blackberries, oranges, apples, pears and peaches. It’s better to eat fruits rather than veggies and whole grains because they are digested faster; getting energy to your dancer’s muscles faster.
The last tip is drinking plenty of water. Because we lose water through sweating, it’s really important to drink ﬂuid throughout the day and not wait until you feel thirsty. Once you realize that you’re thirsty, it’s actually too late because you’re on your way to being dehydrated.
But how do you define “plenty” of water. Well, this amount varies from person to person depending on age and weight. According to the healthykids.gov.au/ website, here are the recommendations for children:
5 glasses (1 liter) of water per day for children 5 to 8 years old
7 glasses (1 ½ liter) of water per day for children 9 to12 years old
8-10 glasses (2 liters) of water per day for children 13 years and older
Keep in mind that your dancer should drink more water when they’re dancing, exercising or just outside on a hot day. To ensure that water is always at hand, your dancers should carry a refillable bottle which can easily be refilled when empty. If your dancer doesn’t like water, squeeze a little fresh lemon or lime into it for a refreshing citrus taste.
Even if it’s difficult to remember these tips, the old adage “everything in moderation,” still holds true. So don’t sweat it if once in a while your dancer wants a slice of chocolate cake … let him or her enjoy.
Here are some sources that I found helpful in researching this blog topic: www.contemporary-dance.org, www.healthykids.nsw.gov.au, www.actsafe.ca/wp-content/uploads/resources/pdf/dancernutrition.pdf