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Eat Right

Eat RightEat Right. Respect Your Body. Dance Forever.

Dancing is great for your body. Dancers tend to live long lives, in superb health. They maintain their strength, their suppleness, and that magnificent posture well into old age. Frederic Franklin, for example, performed with American Ballet Theatre when he was ninety. But like all elite athletes, dancers need to look after their bodies in order to perform at their best and to avoid injury.

Nutrition is fundamental. But eating well is not always so easy: ballet’s very specific technical and aesthetic requirements are best met with a slender physique. Rest is also essential for the healthy dancer, as is maintaining a sensible and consistent schedule. Knowing about your own joints and muscles—and being willing to heed their warnings—is the crucial first line of defense against overuse injuries, along with proper floors and footwear.

This is all common sense, of course, but it’s easy to let things slide, especially when there are many demands on your time. It can also be tempting to confuse the discipline, hard work, and occasional discomfort entailed in ballet with unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. You won’t be able to dance if you discipline yourself into illness or injury. This section examines the physical and psychological challenges of ballet training, and suggests how to meet them safely in order to realize your body’s full potential for dance.

All information on this page excerpted from The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden, Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Copyright © 2005, 2012. Eliza Gaynor Minden. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

     Whatever your body type—curvy or angular, perky or statuesque—your dancing and your experience as a dancer will improve if you are strong and lean. But don’t stint on nutrition as you form your own beautiful dancer’s physique. Real, vibrant, long-term health relies on it. Food is more than just fuel; it is the construction material with which your body builds and repairs itself. Sustained high-level athletic performance requires first-rate nutrition. It gives you the energy you need, and it helps protect your body from illness and injury. Humans are highly adaptable; you might survive on a diet of junk food, but you feel better and you dance better when you eat wisely.


     Nutrition and diet guidelines from “the experts” seem to change almost weekly. We do know that the dancing body requires a balanced diet. Strive for a variety of fresh, nonprocessed foods, free of additives, organic when possible, and loaded with what’s good for you. Rather than count calories, make your calories count. An orange and a soda both provide sugar for energy, but one is full of vitamin C and fiber and the other is virtually nutrient-free.


     Quantity matters, too. To perform or practice as hard as most dancers do every day requires calories. Insufficient caloric intake reduces muscle strength, endurance, speed, and coordination. It increases risk of injury and prolongs recovery. Low blood sugar impairs concentration, decision making, and mood. You’ll feel more irritable, angry, anxious, depressed, inadequate, and alone. Undereating may also precipitate binge eating. Ultimately your performance and health will suffer.

     Most nutritionists agree that to maintain health, we need carbohydrates, protein, and fat. No one food or type of food has everything we need; it’s the sensible balance that makes the body run like a well-oiled machine. Many foods provide more than one type of nutrient; a hamburger, for example, contains both protein and fat. Add ketchup, onions, and a bun, and it has carbohydrates as well. Dancers sometimes skimp on protein because they fear the fat that often accompanies it, but there are many lean sources of protein, such as chicken or fish. Protein is essential for sustained, as opposed to quick, energy; and protein at every meal also helps keep you from feeling hungry between meals. Just be aware that not all proteins, carbs, and fats are equal. For example, fats such as olive oil or the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild salmon and walnuts are very good for you, whereas the hydrogenated fat in supermarket cookies is not.


     We also require water, fiber, and “micronutrients,” the technical term for vitamins and minerals. Make sure your diet is rich in micronutrients, but don’t overly rely on supplements to obtain them. Our bodies absorb nutrients much more efficiently and fully from real food. Excessive amounts of one vitamin or mineral can interfere with absorption of another, and some can be toxic in large doses. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the best sources for many crucial micronutrients; moreover, they are fairly low in calories and high in fiber. Fiber helps your digestion. Foods high in fiber—whole-grain breads and cereals, fresh fruit, and vegetables—are processed more slowly, helping to regulate appetite and optimizing nutrient absorption by the body.


     Here’s a general, common sense, list of things to avoid:

  • Eating extremes of any kind

  • Fad diets

  • Food grown with pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones

  • Junk food

  • Refined, processed foods

  • Soda, regular and diet (there is some evidence that the phosphates in sodas may deplete the calcium from bones)

  • Excessive caffeine



     There are hundreds of good reasons why never to smoke—cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, for starters. As a dancer, you’ve got another reason: you are an athlete, and smoking will decrease your lung capacity and stamina. It’s also bad for your circulation and makes your hair smell funky, your skin unhealthy, and your fingernails and toenails weak. It’s very simple: if you want to dance to your full potential, don’t smoke.

     Over the past forty years, increasingly thin body ideals have produced increasingly unhealthy eating, both in and outside the ballet world. Ballet dancing itself does not cause eating disorders, but dancers are susceptible to them. In the past, eating disorders could flourish in parts of the dance world because of ignorance and denial; now there is awareness, acknowledgment, and help. But a lot of misinformation still floats around studios and dressing rooms. Here are the facts.


     Eating disorders are actually a spectrum of illnesses involving extreme attitudes toward food and unhealthy behavior relating to it. Once ignored and misunderstood, eating disorders are now recognized as grave problems. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. Anorexia is an intense, irrational fear of weight gain that leads to self-starvation. Bulimia is a cycle of binge eating in short, secret bursts, followed by purging the ingested calories through vomiting, laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise. While anorectics are usually very thin, bulimics may be normal, over- or underweight. Many have a combination of some anorexic and some bulimic behavior. Binge eaters, also known as compulsive overeaters, experience episodes of uncontrollable eating—past the point of feeling full—often followed by feelings of shame and self-loathing.


     The most widespread eating disorder, less severe but still serious, is called disordered eating. Symptoms include engaging in some of the behavior associated with a full-blown eating disorder but sporadically or to a lesser extent. Symptoms also include altering eating habits in response to stress, repeatedly going on extreme diets, exercising too much, using supplements to reduce weight or boost metabolism, and experiencing significant weight fluctuations.


Why You Should Be Concerned

     Left untreated, eating disorders can cause a myriad of medical complications and, at their worst, loss of life. They can wreck your bones, muscles, skin, and internal organs, including your reproductive system.

Anorexia Nervosa. When the body faces starvation, it does all it can to conserve energy; everything slows down. This is what can happen:


  • Blood pressure and heart rate drop, resulting in fainting, fatigue, and even heart failure.

  • Bones become dry and brittle because bone density is lost (osteoporosis), making them far more vulnerable to fracture.

  • Menstrual periods cease (amenorrhea) or onset of menstruation does not occur. Prolonged amenorrhea results in low hormone levels that cause a loss of bone density and can lead to early osteoporosis. Amenorrhea can also cause infertility if left untreated and may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

  • Muscle mass is lost.

  • Hair and skin become dry. Hair loss occurs.

  • General breakdown of organs and systems occurs.


Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

Behavioral signs

  • Restricted eating

  • Odd food rituals (for example, counting bites of food, cutting food into tiny pieces, preparing food for others while refusing to eat)

  • Intense fear of becoming fat

  • Avoidance of situations where food will be present

  • Extreme exercise regimes

  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss

  • Binge eating

  • Use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics to get rid of food


Physiological signs

  • Weight loss

  • Cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea)

  • Pale complexion

  • Often feeling cold

  • Fainting spells, dizziness

  • Distended abdomen

  • Fatigue


Psychological signs

  • Mood swings

  • Withdrawal from friends and family

  • Perfectionist tendencies

  • Insecurity

  • Self-worth determined by food choices

  • Distorted sense of reality


Bulimia Nervosa. The entire digestive tract can be damaged by the purging aspect of the bulimic cycle.

  • Frequent vomiting can inflame and even rupture the esophagus. It can decay and stain the teeth with stomach acids and may lead later to ulcers and possibly to esophageal cancer.

  • Laxative abuse can cause chronic bowel problems.

  • Other consequences include peptic ulcers (sores in the stomach lining), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas in which enzymes actually start to digest the pancreas itself), and electrolyte imbalances (potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium naturally found in the body are not at proper levels) that can disrupt the heart and even cause heart failure.


Signs of Bulimia Nervosa

Behavioral signs

  • Binge eating

  • Sneaking food and eating in secret

  • Preoccupation with food

  • Self-hatred when too much food is consumed

  • Bathroom visits after meals

  • Vomiting, laxative abuse, or fasting

  • Extreme exercise routines


Physiological signs

  • Enlarged salivary glands, bloated cheeks (“chipmunk cheeks”), or broken blood vessels under the skin

  • Frequent sore throats

  • Tooth decay

  • Muscle aches

  • Weight fluctuations

  • Fatigue


Psychological signs

  • Mood swings

  • Self-loathing and self-criticism

  • Self-worth determined by food choices

     Why are dancers so often afflicted? Ballet, like modeling and gymnastics, makes no secret of its preference for a lean body. Line is everything. Unlike models and gymnasts, however, dancers spend hours on end scrutinizing themselves in the mirror, wearing only tights and leotards that reveal every contour and magnify any perceived flaws. Furthermore, its atmosphere of courtesy and grace notwithstanding, ballet class can be tremendously competitive, a microcosm of the ballet world in general. There is pressure to be no heavier than the girl next to you, and to stay light enough to be partnered easily.


     A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that in some ballet schools and modeling agencies, where thinness is necessary for professional success, the rate of anorexia nervosa is about ten times as great as in the general population. Equally disturbing were the results of a study from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which examined disordered eating in professional ballet companies across North America and Western Europe. The results showed that 15 percent of the Americans and 23 percent of the Europeans questioned had anorexia nervosa, while 19 percent of the Americans and 29 percent of the Europeans reported having bulimia. Most of the anorectic dancers were members of extremely competitive national dance companies.


     Imbalances in the brain chemistry that regulates appetite and digestion may play a part in eating disorders. This is not yet fully understood; what we do know is that emotional problems, intensified by social and cultural pressures, contribute greatly to these illnesses. Depression, loneliness, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, a sense that one lacks control over one’s life or an inability to express one’s feelings—these psychological maladies are made worse if there are troubled family or romantic relationships, if there has been ridicule because of weight in the past, or if there has been abuse. A culture that equates beauty and desirability with thinness only makes matters worse.


     Feeling a lack of control over your life can set the stage for an eating disorder, and a ballet class may easily trigger such feelings. It is so easy to be dissatisfied with oneself in class—with one’s body and one’s abilities—and to lose self-esteem over it. Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time because puberty affects both your body and your technique. Some dancers, in an effort to regain control of their lives or even to reverse the changes of puberty, try to seize control of their bodies with disordered eating. That’s when things can get out of control.


     In the long term, an eating disorder can destroy a successful dance career. Short term, it will interrupt your thinking, and steal hours, chances, and opportunities. If you recognize any of the symptoms of an eating disorder in your own life, take action now. You need to shift priorities from dance training to regaining your health. If you don’t break the cycle of abuse you’re inflicting on your body, you may even lose your life. The first step is to talk about it—with a parent, a teacher, a trusted friend. Sharing your concern out loud lifts the veil of shame and secrecy that is almost always associated with disordered eating. The next step is to find professional help.

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