As promised, here are the things I learned!
1. CARBS ARE NOT THE ENEMY!
Dancers, say it with me and rejoice! It’s OK to eat carbs!
There’s a massive thing in dance about carbs, and so many dancers won’t eat them. There’s a belief that they cause weight gain or they’re stodgy and weigh you down. Obviously you don’t want to eat a huge bowl of pasta right before class or a performance, because you probably will have a heavy feeling in the body. However in general, carbs are very much necessary in a dancer’s diet. They give your muscles fuel for dancing, aid recovery, and actually enable your body to burn fat!
I realised that by avoiding carbs, I was actually making it harder for my body to release the excess weight. I was also really hungry, making it harder to make healthy choices. What a revelation!
2. Lunch should be the main meal
One of the mistakes I was making was to eat very lightly at breakfast and lunch, and have my main meal in the evening. This was often quite late, meaning I’d go to bed with a full stomach. This was wreaking havoc with my blood sugar, and I’d wake up in the morning with the most unbelievable sugar cravings!
Zerlina recommended that I ate a good amount at breakfast, being sure to include more carbs, and have my main meal at lunch. Dinner should be smaller, with some carbohydrates but not as much.
3. There aren’t “good” and “bad” carbs
Zerlina mentioned that she was wary of suggestions that some carbohydrates are better than others, for example that quinoa and sweet potato is better than bread or pasta. Of course, wholemeal equivalents provide more nutrients than white versions, however these different types of carbohydrates are used differently by the body. All should be considered in a healthy meal plan.
4. Use the “third of the plate” rule
As a general rule, a third of the plate should be a source of protein, e.g. meat, fish or tofu, a third or perhaps more should be vegetables and maybe some fruit, and a third should be a source of carbohydrate such as bread, potatoes or rice. With dinner, I tend to reduce the carbohydrate serving to just under a third, and add more vegetables.
5. Snack smarter
I have always tried to avoid snacking, thinking it was bad for you. Whenever I did snack, I felt guilty about it, so I usually compensated by nibbling on celery or fruit, and kept the portion as small as possible. However, Zerlina recommended that I choose snacks that contain both protein and carbohydrate: for example, instead of my usual apple, chopping it up and putting it in yoghurt (FYI my new favourite thing in the world) or spreading reduced-fat houmous on crackers or oatcakes. This is far more satisfying, let me tell you!
These snacks are more substantial, so I feel like I’m eating more, but really I’m eating less over the course of the day, because I’m not getting to 4pm, feeling ravenous and over-eating.
6. There’s no cut-off time for eating!
Zerlina said that she does not have a rule such as “no eating after 9pm”. She said that if you need to eat late, for example because of work etc., then that’s fine as long as your body has time to digest before going to bed. The bigger the meal, the more time you should have to digest it before going to bed; probably a couple of hours for a main meal. If you don’t have long between eating and going to bed, eat less at this time.
7. Switch Your Fats
I, like many, had been drawn in by the health-foodie-types advice that saturated fat is absolutely fine. This is true to a point, I believe: in the past, we’ve been taught to actively fear saturated fat unnecessarily. Now, however, it’s said that saturated fats are more stable for cooking at higher temperatures, and there are many claims to the benefits of coconut oil. However I had let myself be convinced that more was better. I was cooking with coconut oil or butter, and I was putting coconut oil in my smoothies and even my coffee for extra energy. Saturated fat provides energy but virtually no other nutrients, and is incredibly high in calories. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, provide nutrients that are essential to our health!
A little saturated fat is fine, but should be limited. Unsaturated fats should be consumed in moderation, to provide the body with those essential nutrients. Zerlina recommended switching to virgin olive oil for dressings, and non-virgin olive oil, or just vegetable oil for cooking, and measuring out a tablespoon per person. She also suggested that I switched from the whole dairy products I was using to reduced-fat versions. Healthy fats can also come from nuts, seeds and oily fish.
She advocates a moderate approach: coconut oil is great, and I LOVE the taste of full-fat plain yoghurt- I asked if I had to give it up. Absolutely not! She said that if I’ve already used butter or coconut oil earlier in the day, then low-fat yoghurt is a better choice. If I’ve chosen small amounts of unsaturated fats, then go ahead and enjoy a full-fat yoghurt. I use that approach, and I’ve cut right right down on my saturated fat intake. I didn’t realise before just how much of it I was consuming!
8. Dessert is OK!
This I was relieved to hear! I mentioned that I often feel the urge for something sweet after a meal. She said that it’s fine to finish the meal with something sweet- just try to choose something with some nutritional value, rather than pure sugar. Now I have fruit, on its own or with yoghurt, or maybe frozen, or a flavoured yoghurt (I eat plain yoghurt during the day), or a chia pudding with coconut milk and vanilla extract. It makes me feel like I’ve had a dessert to finish a meal and I also feel good for making healthy choices.
9. Eat Regularly
I mentioned often craving sugar so badly I’d end up buying sweet snacks, even though my main meals were really healthy. Zerlina noticed that I was eating breakfast early and lunch very late, because my ballet class is right in the middle. She suggested aiming to eat around every 3 hours. Now I prepare meals and snacks at home in advance, and carry them with me when I’m out. I eat every 3 hours, which is when I’m naturally hungry anyway, and my blood sugar is finally under control! I don’t feel excessively hungry, suffer from cravings or have the urge to indulge in unhealthy foods.
These are the main points I took away from my appointment. I’m sharing them because I think that it’s good advice for all dancers to follow! However these are tips that address my own issues, which is that I was eating very healthy meals, but I was eating too few carbohydrates and too infrequently, resulting in hunger and sugar cravings which led to me giving in to sweet snacks to keep me going. Every person has their own strong and weak points when it comes to addressing their nutrition: others might need more of a certain vitamin, they might want to gain rather than lose weight, build muscle or have more energy for classes and rehearsals.
I strongly recommend that if you are having any issues with your nutrition (or having issues that nutrition could help to address, such as injuries), you do see a qualified nutritionist with experience advising dancers. It can be expensive, but this is the best investment I’ve ever made. That way, you can ask any questions that you have, and receive advice tailored to your lifestyle and your own unique needs!
If you really can’t afford to see a nutritionist right now, the next best thing I can recommend is Zerlina’s book. She didn’t tell me about the book in our meeting, but I came across it online and read it. It’s an extremely useful tool for any dancer. I’ll write a full review of it and post it here soon, but it expands on all the points above and gives more general advice for a variety of dietary issues.
I hope this was helpful- stay healthy, dancers!
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