Dancers can’t help snacking. With packed class and rehearsal schedules, few have time to eat a real meal. By late afternoon, a bag of pretzels can seem like a lifesaver. When it’s 4 p.m. and several hours of rehearsals lie ahead, you need a boost. That’s why a new snack trend, prepackaging 100-calorie quantities of popular brands, may seem tempting. Supermarkets, drugstores, and convenience chains now have shelves of them. Designed to help grab-n-go eaters resist temptation, they range from protein-energy bars and “lite” yogurts to nutrition-free mini-packs of Oreos and Chips Ahoy.
While no pre-packaged snack is designed with dancers’ needs in mind, the 100-calorie options are quick, convenient, and easy to toss into a dance bag. Which ones you choose and when you eat them make a difference, though. Compared to some energy bars that tend to carry upwards of 200 calories and 20 grams of sugar, Balance Bar’s 100 Calories Nutrition Energy Snack Bar has a good nutritional mix. The Chocolate Caramel Crisp flavor, for instance, delivers six grams of protein and five grams of fiber with just four grams of fat. Another healthy option is the 100-calorie pack of The South Beach Diet’s whole wheat snack crackers. Made from whole grain wheat, each one has three grams of fiber and two grams of protein, with only two grams of sugar.
In general, though, pre-packaged snacks should be consumed sparingly, since most don’t replenish a dancer’s energy needs. A100-calorie package of Nabsico Wheat Thin Chips may sound healthy, but in reality, they aren’t made from whole grains, so they deliver a miniscule single gram of fiber per package.
Rebecca Dietzel, a former dancer and a nutritional biochemist, says that eating a well-balanced snack 20-30 minutes before class or rehearsal gives dancers the best boost in terms of energy. “It’s enough time to begin digesting and not get in the way of your dancing,” she says, “so you’re not going to get stomach cramps and you’re not going to get all bloated.”
Dietzel stresses that snacks should contain a balance of “good” carbohydrates and “good” fats. The latter can be found in a wide variety of nuts and seeds, including walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. Good carbohydrates, meanwhile, naturally occur in any fruit—apples, bananas, and pears—as well as whole grains that come in the form of bread or rice. “Good carbohydrates give you quick burning fuel, and good fats will metabolize more slowly, so that’s fuel for later,” Dietzel says. “I always tell dancers that if you have a 9 a.m. ballet class and eat a piece of fruit and a handful of walnuts beforehand, the apple or whatever fruit gets you through the barre, and the walnuts will get you through the jumps at the end.”
That means that the snacks you put together yourself—mixing yogurt and nuts, or stuffing a piece of fruit in your bag—are apt to boost your energy more consistently. And since good carbohydrates are unprocessed and contain less air, dancers will find that they’re able to eat more while remaining in a modest caloric range. The average apple has about 100 calories, and it’s rich in fiber, so you feel full after you eat one.
Brenda Schwartz, nutritionist for The Ailey School, recommends that dancers try carrying tofu cubes, which come in a wide variety of flavors such as Thai and Italian. “Each one is 100 calories, it’s pure protein, plus it’s extremely delicious and portable. And tofu does not need to be refrigerated while you carry it around for a few hours,” she says. She says that dancers should be sure to avoid items with hydrogenated oils, trans fats or added sugar, all of which pack on extra pounds and can contribute to other health issues.
The real key is to resist comparing your snack options to those of your fellow dancers. Each of us has unique needs and digests food in particular ways. Muscle, which weighs more than fat, also burns more calories. “You can have a very lean looking dancer who actually has more fat mass on her frame,” says Dietzel. “That means she’s going to burn calories in a different way, so she needs to make snack choices that work for her.”
Suzanne Palazzo, a former dancer, is an editor at
Grocery Headquarters Magazine.