One of the many things I wish I had understood better when I was a professional dancer was the role of nutrition in memory and quick learning. Being labeled a “quick-study” can do as much for your career as your body type. We can’t control what kind of feet we are born with, but we can make a difference in how well our brains work through the power of nutrition.
Meal timing: fuel the brain
A common theme in many of my articles for Dance Informa, is the concept of “smaller, more frequent meals.” Providing a regular source of fuel to muscle and brain cells improves mental and physical performance, mood and fatigue levels. This means eating breakfast and then making healthy choices about every three hours during the day.
The brain runs on glucose from digested foods. No food in the system, especially after an overnight fast, means that brain function suffers. Providing fuel first thing in the morning improves test performance1. We have known for years that breakfast is associated with academic success, but one Chinese study actually showed that breakfast improved IQ scores in young children2. There was an improvement in brain function when subjects ate a low-glycemic index (LGI) breakfast3,4. LGI foods such as whole grains, fruits, soymilk, oatmeal and nuts digest slowly and provide sustained energy.
The nice thing for dancers is that eating breakfast and eating regular LGI foods will not only enable you to think faster, but will help you have a healthy body weight and decreased body fat. See my “Glycemic Index” article in Dance Informa (April 2012) for more details.
Protein also has the power to help us stay focused longer. So if your energy promoting carbs have a protein to accompany them, you will be able to pick up choreography much faster. Try nuts, veggie sausage or even a tofu scramble. Keep eggs to a minimum because of the fat and cholesterol in the yolk.
“Power foods for the brain”
Dr. Neal Barnard’s groundbreaking book by this title describes a “Brain Enhancing Menu.”5 Instead of the food groups most westerners grew up with, he simplifies it into four main groups: fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. The many reasons these protect memory and boost brain function range from their low-fat content to their storehouse of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
I highly recommend getting four servings of veggies and two to three servings of fruits every day. One serving of vegetables is only ½ cup or three to four broccoli spears. Throw some on a cup of salad greens and that’s two servings right there. Add walnuts, flax seeds or chia seeds for brain boosting omega-3 fats and pumpkin seeds, garbanzos or edamame for protein, and you have a brain-boosting lunch. Blueberries have also been shown to protect memory so add ¾ cup of organic blueberries to oatmeal in the morning with some nuts and seeds and you will be labeled a “quick-study” in no time.
Foods and substances that sabotage memory
We all know that to maintain our lean dancers’ bodies we have to limit or avoid foods found in the typical western diet such as saturated fats, refined grains, cream, butter, bacon, red and processed meats. But now research demonstrates links between these unhealthy foods and memory loss. It’s not just about forgetting where you put your keys. Risk for Alzheimer’s goes up when people eat these types of foods. It seems that both fat and cholesterol affect brain function and are linked to the development of plaques that make it harder for your brain cells to communicate.5 Columbia University tracked 908 elderly New Yorkers over four years and those who ate the most meat and dairy had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s than those who favored a more “Mediterranean” style of eating.5, 6 Don’t wait until you are elderly to protect your brain. The good news is that eating more plant foods that don’t have saturated fat or cholesterol provide protection from memory loss, but they also boost mental and physical performance at any age.
1. Rampersaud GC, Pereira MA, Girard BL, Adams J, Metzl JD. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 May;105(5):743-60; quiz 761-2.
2. Early Hum Dev. 2013 Apr;89(4):257-62. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2013.01.006. Epub 2013 Feb 8. Regular breakfast consumption is associated with increased IQ in kindergarten children.
3. Degoutte F et al. Int J of Sports Medicine 2006
4. Tarnopolsky MA. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 1996
5. Barnard ND, Power Foods for the Brain. Hachette Book Group. 2013.
6. Scarmeas N, Luchsinger JA, Schupf N et al. Physical Activity, diet, and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. JAMA. 2009;302:627-37