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By Jennifer Stahl
Most dancers wish they had the strength of an iron man in the body of a runway model. And they sometimes resort to extreme methods to pull it off, from fat-burning pills and the Master Cleanse, to cabbage soup plans.
But whether you gained a few pounds over summer layoff or your genes naturally hang onto extra padding, there are ways to lose weight without risking your health. Start by figuring out what part of your diet is dragging you down. Then fuel your body with the nutrients it craves. Here are some smart—and proven—strategies to help you do it.
First Lines of Attack
When dancers go to nutritionist Joy Bauer to lose a few pounds, she tells them first to cut out desserts and liquid calories (like soda, juice, and alcohol). Roberta Marchand, a dancer for The Next Stage Project in New York City and a personal chef, lost 10 pounds by eliminating refined sugar from her diet, satisfying her sweet tooth with vitamin-rich fresh fruit instead.
Also avoid high-calorie snacks. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s nutritionist Peggy Swistak tells dancers to munch on snacks with no more than 150 calories—but don’t cut them out entirely. “Split up your calories throughout the day so your body gets used to using them for energy,” she says. “Eating all your calories at once teaches your body to store the weight.” As long as you watch portions, you can eat whenever your body feels hungry. Otherwise it will eventually rebel, sending you on a refrigerator raid.
Daily Calorie Count
How many calories should you shoot for? Because there are many variables like height, activity level, and metabolism, only a dietitian can figure it out for you. But as a general rule, multiply your current weight by anywhere from 12 and 16 (closer to 12 to lose weight, 16 to maintain). Be sure never to dip below 1,200 calories a day. Cutting back too far will deny your body the nutrients and energy needed to dance. Plus, your inner cave woman will think you’re starving so you’ll stop burning calories efficiently.
Throw away any diet plan that restricts whole food groups. “Your body is like a car,” says Swistak. “It doesn’t just run on gas—it needs oil, brakes, tires, etc.” A car without tires will look smaller, but will it work?
Aim for one or two servings of high quality carbohydrates and three to five ounces of protein at each meal. Bauer, who works with dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, says coupling these two food groups optimizes energy levels and keeps you satisfied. This is because carbs digest in about one hour, while proteins take about three hours. Over the course of each day, eat two servings of low-fat dairy, two servings of fruit, and at least five servings of vegetables. One of the most overlooked diet weapons is fiber (found in veggies, fruits, and whole grains), which helps fight hunger since it takes awhile to move through the digestive system.
Getting all of your food groups means eating fat. Yes, fat. “The phobia that if you eat fat you’ll get fat is simply not true,” says Swistak. Your body needs healthy fats to absorb vitamins. Most low-fat labeled processed foods have very few nutrients for a surprisingly large number of calories.
And of course, drink lots of water. It’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger, so drink up first before grabbing another snack.
From Diet to Disorder
For disciplined dancers, a healthy diet can all too easily slip into disordered eating. Recently, nutritionists have seen an increase of dancers with orthorexia, where the sufferers eat healthy foods but cut back on calories to an extreme degree. “When a dancer gets good feedback about losing five pounds, her perfectionism can easily push her to want to lose more,” says Swistak.
In general, two pounds is the most you should lose in a week. Bauer says that if there’s any doubt you might be going too far, check in with a dietitian. It’s easiest to make a change before you acquire a full-blown disorder.
Food for Fuel
Food is your body’s best friend, even when trying to lose weight. Don’t treat it like your enemy. “The biggest mistake dancers make when dieting is trying to be ‘good’ during the day,” says Swistak. “When they get home at night they’re ravenous and eat everything in sight.”
NYC-based freelance dancer Diane Tomasi lost six dress sizes by focusing on eating “real” food: vegetables, whole grains, and products that are “closer to the earth.” She quit taking diet pills, which only made her feel sick and didn’t stave off hunger. Now a size two, she eats anything she wants (in moderation) and doesn’t make splurges a regular habit.
Extra pounds will fall off naturally if you focus on foods that benefit your body instead of obsessively shunning those that could make you fat. “The dancers I see who have done well say they just decided to become healthier,” says Swistak.
Instead of always reaching for low-fat/low-carb products, Marchand thinks about what will fuel her to perform well. “Most ‘lite’ products are just processed chemicals that don’t do much to help me athletically,” she says. “But my body can use a lot of the nutrients in whole wheat toast with natural peanut butter.”
The key to dropping pounds is resisting what Bauer calls “the fad diet flavor of the month.” And embrace your body despite any imperfections. “You’re using your body to do what you love: dance,” says Tomasi. “So treat it with a little love.”
Jennifer Stahl is Dance Magazine’s education editor.