Dancers are performing athletes. As a former professional ballet dancer myself, I wish I had better understood what a big impact eating good food can have on performance, risk for injuries, and of course, how we look in a pair of tights. Now as a nutritionist for dancers, my message is always to eat well and choose foods wisely. But how is a dancer to know what good choices are? Here are my tips for the top 5 foods (or food groups) that dancers must eat.
Apples, blueberries, pineapple, and pretty much all fruits
Fruit is the perfectly portable pre-rehearsal snack. Having trouble remembering that ballet you learned last year? Flavonoid-rich foods like blueberries have been shown to enhance spatial memory and speed rates of learning. The dark red skins of apples and grapes contain polyphenols, which have a protective effect against oxidative stress. Pineapple has been shown to reduce inflammation.
These high-water content foods, which are packed with fiber, vitamins and phytonutrients, are low in calories and have almost no fat. The body absorbs Vitamin C much better from an actual piece of fruit than some mega-dose powdered mix. Fruits have been given a bad rap for their sugar, but it is naturally occurring fructose not the processed sugar you find in bars or beverages. The quick burst of energy they give you can be a good thing when eaten during a short break or intermission. Avoid fruit juice and stick to the whole fruit.
Beets, greens, and other performance enhancing veggies
A certain cyclist may have taken the term “performance enhancing” to a different level, but in sports nutrition we know that certain veggies do actually help athletic performance. All veggies contain bioactive compounds such as polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids and lycopene. Sure they fight cancer and all, but they can also help you on stage today. Naturally occurring nitrates in foods like beets, arugula, spinach and rhubarb have been shown to significantly improve performance with better power output and speed. Dancers might see benefits by eating more of these veggies and/or drinking beetroot juice. Nitrates help the body deliver more oxygen to working muscles and increase muscle endurance. Nitrates from pills have not shown the same benefits as eating the actual veggie containing them. Regularly eating beets, kale and other veggies will help you get through those tough pieces of choreography.
Quinoa is a grain with a long history, but it is becoming very popular today. It is one of the only grains that is a complete protein. It also cooks faster than rice, absorbs flavors nicely, is cheap and a great source of energy promoting carbs. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for all athletic activity so dancers should be trying to get a broad range of carbs from whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, wheat, barley, rye and oats. Cook quinoa in water on the stove just like you cook rice – one cup of quinoa to two cups water or vegetable broth.
Dancers are at higher than average risk for stress fractures. It’s time for dancers to think outside of the (milk) box for getting more of their crucial calcium and Vitamin D. One cup of a leading brand vanilla almond milk contains 45 percent daily value of calcium and 25 percent daily value of Vitamin D. Plus, it is a beautiful source of Vitamin E, which is often lacking in dancers’ low fat diets. It also has zinc and Vitamin A, which are both important for a strong immune system. Keep in mind that bone health is more than just calcium and Vitamin D. Did you know that Vitamin K is important for strong bones, prevention of stress fractures and osteoporosis? Good sources are leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard and even broccoli – yet another reason to love greens!
Getting more of your protein from plant-based sources and eating less meat is the single most important thing you can do for prevention of disease. I consider this right up there with not smoking. Beans are a very inexpensive and easy way to consume protein, iron, zinc, fiber and disease-fighting phytonutrients. For example, one half cup of black beans has only 114 calories but about eight grams of protein. Dancers need multiple sources of protein but don’t have money to spare. You can make a great pot of three-bean chili in a slow cooker for less than $2 per serving. A full cup of organic pinto beans only costs $0.33. Throw all the ingredients together in the morning and your slow cooker will take care of the rest.
How do you put all this in practice? Here is my Protein Packed Quinoa recipe which uses most of these ingredients. Drink a side of Almond milk and you will feel and dance great.
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1 cup cooked black beans
½ pineapple chopped into small pieces
2 mangos chopped into small pieces
2 limes, squeeze the juice into separate bowl
1.5 Tbs olive oil
1/2 cup cilantro chopped
1 tsp salt
½ tsp red pepper flakes
2 cups water
Boil 2 cups of water in medium pot. Add quinoa and reduce heat to simmer. Cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer cooked quinoa to large bowl and add pre-cooked black beans, pineapple and mango. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk dressing together using lime juice, olive oil, cilantro, salt and red pepper. Mix well. Add dressing and mix well.