They say injury can be a great teacher: When Texas Ballet Theater dancer Carolyn Judson was sidelined with a back injury in 2007, her interest in health piqued. “I wondered how I could heal myself, so I began to research and read,” she says. “I was amazed at what I found. I turned to food that reduced pain and inflammation.” She credits the dietary changes she made, in addition to getting introduced to Gyrotonic, with helping her recover more quickly.
As time went on, Judson decided to expand her education. She enrolled in an online health coach training program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, graduating in 2013. “I would come home from rehearsal and go right to class. The program also covered how to start up a business.” Judson has since built her own website, which features many of her popular recipes. See below for her healthy veggie tacos!
Serves 3 to 5.
3 zucchini squash, ends trimmed, cut lengthwise
3 carrots, peeled
1 sweet potato, peeled, cut lengthwise
1 onion, peeled, cut into quarters
1 15-ounce can black beans
crumbled feta cheese
juice from 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or coconut oil
salsa or hot sauce (optional)
- Grate the vegetables in a food processor, keeping each one separate after grating.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium pan and add the onion, carrots and sweet potato. Add a pinch or two of salt. Once they begin to soften, add the zucchini. Meanwhile, heat your canned black beans in a small sauce pan.
- Place the cooked vegetables on top of your tortillas. Top with beans, sliced avocado, crumbled feta cheese, chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Serve with salsa or hot sauce. Enjoy!
Like many dancers, New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena is constantly looking for ways to help his body run more efficiently. After watching a documentary about juice cleansing this March, Carmena decided to try his own three-day version during the last week of the company’s season. “I wasn’t trying to lose weight,” he says. “I just wanted to restart my body.”
Attempting to be as healthy as possible, Carmena created his own juices from spinach, kale, cucumbers and squash, occasionally throwing in berries, ginger or grapefruit. On the first day, he felt hungry but also more hydrated. By day two, though, he’d become stressed-out, and noticed that he had far less energy in rehearsal. “I felt weak, and couldn’t push as hard,” he says. “I realized a juice cleanse isn’t good while you’re dancing.”
Juice cleansing or fasting—where people drink only fruit and vegetable juice while avoiding solid foods—has been used in religious and cultural rituals since the Old Testament days. Dieters have co-opted the practice because it offers a quick way to drop pounds on a short-term basis, and some alternative-medicine practitioners believe that giving the body a break from solid foods allows it to focus on healing. Today, the fresh juice business, including premade juice cleanses, has become a $5 billion industry.
Dancing on the Diet
Juicing has gained traction among dancers. Some view it as an opportunity to get in top aesthetic form before an audition or performance. Others, like Carmena, see it as a chance to detox, although few scientific studies have tested that idea. The deluge of fluids, vitamins and minerals is also appealing to health-conscious perfectionists: All of those berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens can load the body up on antioxidants.
But an all-juice diet has serious consequences. Juices lack protein, digestion-enhancing fiber and healthy fat, and don’t include the combinations of elements that help your body take advantage of the health benefits of fruits and veggies. “Nutrients need to be in certain forms to be digested and enter the bloodstream,” explains Rebecca Dietzel, a biochemist in private practice in nutritional counseling. “Calcium from kale, for example, can’t get into its ionized form when it’s put through the juicer.”
What’s more, juice cleanses rarely offer substantial calories, causing a host of problems. Within 48 hours of starting a juice cleanse, your body is forced to burn muscle mass for energy, says Joy Dubost, PhD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re losing essential nutrients and electrolytes,” she says, “which over time can affect the rhythm of your heart and cause muscle cramps.” Thinking it’s experiencing a famine, your body goes into a state of panic, and inflammation increases, making chronic injuries like tendonitis worse. “Your brain also says, ‘Let’s turn down any nonessential processes so we can conserve fuel,’ ” says Dietzel. “That includes hormone production and healing processes, both essential to dancers.”
Then why do so many dancers say that juicing makes them feel great? “It’s often because dancers are usually dehydrated, and during a juice cleanse they finally get the fluids their bodies crave,” says Dietzel, who adds that you can get the same effect by drinking adequate water. Some cleansers even feel euphoric after a few days. But this isn’t the result of improved health; it’s because the body has started dumping opiate-like hormones into the system to protect you from noticing that you’re “starving.”
The aftereffects of a juice cleanse can also backfire. Most dancers gain weight when they return to solid foods because they’ve slowed down their metabolism. “You’ve programmed your body to store fat; it thinks it needs to save fuel,” says Dietzel. Because your body has turned down the production of digestive enzymes, it also takes a few days to restart that process, making you feel sluggish and tired after eating.
A Smarter Cleanse
Not all of the principles of a juice cleanse are inherently misguided. Cutting out artificially processed foods in favor of fresh produce can be a healthy choice. If you’re interested in the idea of rebooting your diet, Dietzel suggests spending one day drinking lots of water and eating only fruits and veggies (a large variety). “You’ll get more hydrated, give your liver a break from fat metabolism and get a wide range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. “Plus, all that fiber supports intestinal and colon health by absorbing toxic compounds in the intestine and helping to create a healthy bowel movement.” However, she warns, just like a juice fast, this one-day diet doesn’t offer enough energy to fuel a full day of dance rehearsals. Only try it on a day off.
For the long term, incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains with high fiber into your diet and drinking more water will keep your body on track. That way, you won’t need to resort to drastic cleanses in order to hit a risky “reset” button.
Originally published in the August/September 2013 issue of Pointe.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt.
At my last checkup my doctor said I needed to gain weight. I’m 91 pounds and 5' 3". I understand the health risks of being underweight, especially since I’m 17 and haven’t gotten my period yet, but I like my body the way it is. What is the best way to gain weight without overdoing the ice cream? —Sarah
Even though you’re happy with your body as is, your doctor is right—you’re underweight. And the fact that you haven’t had your first period yet is a serious concern. A delayed first period, called primary amenorrhea, is often accompanied by low estrogen levels and frequently occurs in athletic teenagers because they exercise heavily, eat too few calories or both. As a result, you’re at a greater risk for low bone density—which can mean stress fractures and osteoporosis down the line.
According to Emily Harrison, MS, RDN, LD, registered dietitian for the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet, gaining 7 to 12 pounds is a good start toward being in a healthier weight range. She recommends slow, steady weight gain of about one pound every one to two weeks. “It’s best to achieve this by eating regularly throughout the day in smaller but frequent meals and snacks,” says Harrison.
Since individual needs are different, it’s a smart idea to meet with a registered dietitian in your area for a personalized plan. Here are some of Harrison’s recommendations for snacks containing healthy fats and protein, which will help you achieve your weight goal: Add 1/4 cup of nuts to your oatmeal for breakfast; top salads with three slices of avocado; eat 1/2 to one cup of high-protein red-lentil pasta before or after class, or hummus with crackers or veggies. You can also increase your portion sizes of healthy foods such as soups, wraps and salads—Harrison offers a variety of recipes on her website, dancernutrition.com.
Is working out in a pool a good way to cross-train? If so, can you describe some of the strengthening exercises that dancers can do in the water? —Karen
If you’re looking for a cardiovascular workout, swimming laps can be a great option. But it shouldn’t be your primary source of cardio exercise, says Michael Velsmid, DPT, MS and owner of Boston Sports Medicine, a clinic that provides aquatic therapy to Boston Ballet dancers. “The dancer’s body needs to have a certain amount of stress imparted on it,” he says. “But if you’re recovering from a heavy workout, the pool is great. Where you might typically want to skip a day to rest and recover, you can go in the pool without any additional delay in your recovery.”
The pool is also an excellent environment to rehabilitate, especially if you have difficulty with weight-bearing exercises like relevé and petit allégro. I spent an entire summer doing aquatic therapy when I was recovering from a stress fracture in my ankle. But according to Velsmid, “If you’re not recovering from an injury, the pool probably isn’t the best place to strengthen because it’s a gravity-minimized environment.”
However, simply taking barre underwater can do wonders to improve your alignment and balance. Suddenly, exercises that are simple on land, such as passé or grand rond de jambe, become much more difficult. “It helps create a better mind-body connection of how to activate those muscles,” says Velsmid. If you have access to a pool, try going through a ballet barre using the ledge or wall to balance. For an even greater challenge, try it without holding on.
I’m flexible and good at traveling across the floor, but I can’t seem to get any height or extension on my sauts de chat. What should I focus on to get that powerful grand allégro jump? —Mary
I sometimes see dancers with beautiful extensions struggle to get off the ground in grand allégro. While flexibility helps with splitting the legs, you also need proper strength in your hamstrings, back and abdominals to push off the ground and hold the position.
For saut de chat, multiple components must be perfectly timed. As you move through fourth position during your preparation, think of gathering your energy together, making sure your plié is deep and substantial so that you have more power to push off. When you jump, you want to carve an arc through the air—not stay the same level horizontally—so think of lifting your hips as you développé to propel yourself in the right direction (I always imagine a horse rearing on its hind legs). Then, push through the toes of the back foot and think of doing a grand battement derrière. To achieve a nice split, imagine an explosive energy underneath your back thigh. I also try to inhale at the height of the jump—it helps me to hold on to the air a little longer.
Try doing some daily exercises (such as plank poses and modified bridges) or taking a weekly Pilates class to help strengthen your core and hamstrings. And at barre, pay close attention to your fondus and grand battement. The deep plié action of fondu and forceful brush of grand battement are tools you’ll need to utilize later in grand allégro.
Pointe spoke with Roberta Anding, sports dietitian for Houston Ballet, about the biggest nutrition mistakes dancers don’t realize they’re making.
1. Being afraid of foods that are filling or cause temporary bloating. Nutrient-dense, moderate-calorie foods, such as broth-based soups, fruits, vegetables, skim milk and yogurt, will actually help keep hunger at bay. (Limit milk, however, if you are lactose intolerant.)
2. Eating too many nutrition bars. Although these products have nutritional value, they are still processed foods that often have added chemicals, sodium and sugar. You’re better off munching on whole fruits, vegetables or nuts.
3. Going on a colon-cleanse or detox diet. Your liver is a natural detoxifying organ—your body cleanses itself. These diets promote diarrhea, which not only dehydrates you but, as Anding says, “can be quite a performance buster.”
4. Eating too little. When you don’t get enough food, your metabolism slows down, lowering the amount of calories you burn.
5. Going on a low-carb diet. This reduces concentration and exercise capacity, so you’ll have a harder time picking up choreography and performing it. Both your muscles and your brain need the specific type of fuel that carbohydrates provide.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I’m so slow at picking up combinations. Are there any tricks? —Brittany, Georgia
I used to have a hard time, too. My mind wandered while my teacher demonstrated. Try standing in the first spot at the barre. With no one to follow, you’ll be forced to practice relying on yourself to know the steps. And push yourself to go with the first group in center, then review the steps when your group isn’t dancing. Marking with full port de bras will help with muscle memory—your entire body will feel and remember the movements. I often silently mouth the combination to myself. This practice in class will prepare you for rehearsals. When learning choreography, write the steps down in a notebook and study it daily until you can remember on your own.
I love ballet, but I’m not sure I can dance anymore because of my weight. I spend rehearsals watching my younger, skinnier friends learn parts. Do I quit? —Ruth, Maryland
I’m so sorry you’re feeling discouraged. Before you quit, please remember there is more to ballet than being thin. Talent, artistry, strength and intelligence make a truly beautiful dancer. Yes, the ballet world is especially tough on bigger girls. But that doesn’t mean your only option is to give up. To be a professional, you’ll need to be conscientious about looking your best. Try developing a healthy diet and exercise routine that benefits your dancing, too. Think of yourself as an athlete staying on top of her game. I sometimes supplement my ballet classes with the stationary bike and Pilates to help with stamina and strength. Instead of obsessing over calories, focus on eating a balanced diet that gives you energy. A nutritionist can help you develop a plan. Also, consider changing your environment. Is there a different studio in your area that places less emphasis on weight? Another option is to try other genres, like modern or jazz, which are more forgiving about body type. Weight fluctuations are normal during our teenage years due to hormonal changes. Be patient, and try to love your body for what it is, rather than hate it for what it’s not. If you still feel unhappy, quitting may be the answer. But at least you will know you tried—and if you miss it, you can always come back.
I’m getting bunions! I wear spacers, but is there anything else I can do to prevent them? —Diana, Maine
Narrow, tight-fitting shoes (like pointe shoes) often cause bunions. Some people are also genetically predisposed to developing them. According to Dr. Alan Woodle, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s foot and ankle specialist, about 60 percent of dancers have a foot type with a longer big toe, which is more bunion prone. You’re smart to wear spacers. I always wear mine when I’m dancing, and they’ve kept my bunions from growing larger. Dr. Woodle suggests wearing them when not dancing, too, and recommends bunion night splints to correctly align your foot while you sleep (available at Pedifix.com). Make sure you wear properly fitting pointe shoes. Squarer boxes are better for large bunions. “However,” says Dr. Woodle, “some boxes are too wide, so the big toe slips down and jams at the platform.” Work with a professional fitter to try different brands, sizes and makers until you find the right fit. Also choose your street shoes wisely. “Avoid high heels and tapered-toe shoes,” says Dr. Woodle. “Look for rounded-toe flats in soft leather.” Applying leather stretch spray, sold in most shoe stores, loosens the shoe around the bunion joint. Arch supports will also help if your foot pronates (rolls in), which can lead to bunions as well.
Gobble down your Thanksgiving feast guilt-free this year. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recently found that women who performed moderate-intensity cardio exercise before overeating actually increased their metabolism. Instead of turning into love handles, the calories were used to refuel their muscles. So while the turkey is cooking in the oven, hit the bike or elliptical machine for at least 30 minutes.
With so much information on nutrition out there, deciding on what constitutes a healthy diet can be a little confusing, especially for dancers who need to consume enough food to fuel a day of dancing.
The effect of too little nourishment can become evident early in the day, says Marie Elena Scioscia, a Manhattan nutritionist and former dancer. Energy drops, mood starts to plummet and the ability to make decisions diminishes. “Injury prevention goes right out the window,” she says. “The brain and nervous system need a constant supply of energy from blood sugar—which can only come from food. The body will start to break down even over the course of the day.”
Long-term results are even more grim, Scioscia warns. “When dancers consistently undereat over the course of their careers, they set themselves up for muscle loss, impaired immunity, thyroid disorder and other hormonal disorders.” She recommends sticking to a well-balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates and good-quality fats.
With that in mind, we asked four dancers to tell us what they ate in a day of rehearsing and performing. (Our thanks to the dancers for recording their meals for our readers.) We looked at how each dancer approaches diet. Then, without meeting the dancers and knowing only their heights and weights, Scioscia evaluated the diets and made suggestions that dancers at all levels can use.
American Repertory Ballet
1 shot espresso
1 large bowl raisin bran cereal with banana
1 fried egg on 1 slice toast with butter
2 sandwiches: turkey, swiss, mayo, lettuce
1 large coffee
1 chocolate-chip cookie
Tofu with broccoli, soy sauce
Samuel Pott works at maintaining his weight. “I eat a lot,” says Samuel. But “sometimes I have to drink a protein drink at the end of the day to not lose weight.” That’s when he whips up a 700-calorie concoction he buys at a vitamin shop. He also tries to eat a lot of protein at breakfast, to make his energy last, and avoids fast food and junk food like potato chips, high in saturated fat. A splurge? Coffee and a chocolate-chip cookie.
Samuel would do well to consume his special protein drink every day. He’s not eating enough, Scioscia says. He needs approximately 3,000 calories to maintain his energy and body composition, not 2,028. His diet was a little low on dairy, very low on other proteins and low on vegetables. “I would suggest bringing some yogurt to rehearsals, or for a snack, having a protein bar or peanut butter sandwich rather than a cookie. At lunch, I would add a side salad or some vegetable soup.”
Joffrey Ballet School
1 pumpernickel bagel, toasted with butter
1 Naked “Immunity” juice drink
2 slices of turkey breast on a roll with lettuce, pickle, mustard and 1 slice of American cheese
1 cup pasta with broccoli florets
1 cranberry almond muffin
1 15-ounce can of iced coffee
An active ballet student, Rachel Holmes leaves home at 8 am, takes five hours of classes, and then rehearses with a modern company or works a night job before she returns home at midnight. Rachel often eats on the go but doesn’t skip meals. “I don’t think I could,” she says. “If I had more time, I’d probably eat more, especially at lunch.”
Rachel needs approximately 2,300 calories to maintain her weight; her diet shows only about 1,893 calories. In choosing refined starches like a bagel and muffin, which each weigh about 8 ounces, she consumed 15 bread servings, where the average should be 8 to 10. In addition to eating more whole grains, Scioscia advises Rachel to consume at least 5 servings of vegetables a day and increase her protein to 110 grams.
She also missed out on the recommended 1,200 milligrams of calcium. “Dancers should shoot for at least 2 to 3 dairy servings from low-fat sources like skim milk or yogurt. Fortified soy milk is also a good choice, as soy is good for bones.”
New York City Ballet
Light yogurt, orange juice, coffee
Soup, chicken, crackers, orange
NYCB corps de ballet member (and part-time college student) Savannah Lowery is the first to admit her seven-shows-a-week schedule can be “pretty grueling.” Fitting in nutrition is difficult, so she tries to pack in her nutrition during days off. On a recent day when her mom was visiting, she ate three meals: eggs, chicken and salad, and spaghetti. She also occasionally indulges in M&Ms.
Scioscia says Savannah needs approximately 2,200 calories every day, not the 1,421 shown here. “She is an athlete, and so it is very important for her long-term career that she consume enough each day.”
A protein-heavy diet can also lead to sugar cravings. Eating a healthy mix of protein, good-quality fats and carbs will help her feel full. Carbohydrates like oatmeal, sweet potatoes and brown rice give athletes the fuel that is needed to drive muscular endurance and strength, Scioscia explains.“Without carbohydrates, muscle must be broken down for fuel—not good for dancers or anyone long-term.”
Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY
2 pieces of toast with peanut butter and jelly
1 glass of chocolate soy milk
Luna bar, dried fruit or nuts
Sandwich with cheese, avocado and tomato
Sautéed vegetables with tofu
“I feel really strongly about eating three meals a day,” says Melissa Morrissey. With six hours of rehearsal a day, she’s also the one with the Luna bars, dried fruit and nuts in her bag. “I need that snack to keep my energy up,” she adds.
Melissa likes to read up on nutrition, but admits, “There are so many things out there it’s hard to know what to believe. I try to listen to my body.” Paying attention doesn’t mean she doesn’t treat herself. “I will eat dessert sometimes,” she says.
Melissa needs at least 1,600 calories a day. Her diet turned out to be about 1,439 calories. Her carbohydrate intake was on the low side, but adequate. She also consumed too little calcium, fruits, vegetables and protein. “Without adequate protein,” Scioscia warns, “it is impossible to maintain muscle and keep the immune system going.” Melissa, who doesn’t eat red meat, chicken or pork, could eat more fish or try a protein shake for an afternoon snack or before performing.
Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.
Want to keep your appetite in check? Start running. Even though exercise often makes us hungrier, certain types of workouts appear to increase hormones that cue us stop eating once our bodies have enough fuel. A study done at the University of Wyoming last year found that after walking, women overate, consuming more calories than they had burned. But after running or performing other moderate exercise, women consumed several hundred fewer calories as their bodies began better regulating their appetites.
Don't start your wind sprints just yet, though. To run safely, dancers need to take a careful approach. Stay tuned for Pointe's "Running for Dancers" guide in the February/March issue.