Why Cultivating Food Flexibility is Crucial for Your Health

July 12, 2023

Just as nutrition is important to a dancer’s fuel plan, eating patterns that support a dancer’s relationship with food can have an incredible impact on performance potential onstage and in the studio. Yet research suggests that dancers are three times more likely to struggle with an eating disorder than the general population. This often involves inflexibility around foods that diet culture deems to be “bad” or “unhealthy,” like processed foods or desserts.

What Is Food Inflexibility?

Before considering the impact of food flexibility on dancing, let’s uncover what it means to be inflexible at mealtimes. Food inflexibility encompasses rigid and sometimes all-or-nothing thinking. When you’re inflexible around food, it’s challenging to adapt to the food options that are accessible. This can lead to obsessing over food, along with feelings of stress and worry about what foods are (and are not) acceptable to you.

Why Food Flexibility Matters

Food inflexibility makes it hard for dancers to fuel their bodies and feel confident in their food choices. If you’re attempt­ing to abide by a regimented diet, you may miss out on social experiences, like eating out with friends or just grabbing a bite spontaneously. Cultivating food flexibility can offer a sense of ease within an ever-changing or unpredictable schedule, whether it’s a period of hectic rehearsals with little time to meal-prep or a company tour to an unfamiliar place. Ultimately, food flexibility offers opportunities both for nourishment and for the broadening of life experience—the same experiences that can support artistic growth onstage. To harness these benefits, here are three strategies to consider.

Evaluate Current Eating Patterns

It’s important for dancers to recognize if inflexible eating behaviors exist. As a first step, identify red flags, such as obsessing over ingredients, avoiding entire food groups or macronutrients, tracking calories, and feeling guilty about eating certain foods. Since dieting is often normalized in the studio, dancers should raise a critical eye to behaviors that feel rigid, unsupportive, and downright limiting. Do you avoid events that involve food? Think about mealtimes: Do you have feelings of stress, guilt, or anxiety around food? If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then you’re ready to intervene to increase your flexibility at mealtimes.

Challenge Restrictive Food Rules

Challenging your food inflexibilities might feel uncomfortable, especially when eating foods that you or someone else has previously deemed off-limits. Shifting your internal narrative to proactively neutralize thoughts is a starting point. Instead of viewing food as “good” or “bad,” consider how the food is impacting you from a physical, mental, and emotional perspective. Does it leave you feeling energized? Is the avoidance causing you to ruminate about that food? The fear of overdoing it also poses limitations for many dancers, but mindful eating techniques can help dancers identify intuitive cues of fullness and satisfaction.

Seek the Right Support

Increasing your flexibility at mealtimes is not a simple task—this is especially true for dancers who have a history of restrictive eating patterns. Working alongside a licensed professional, such as a registered dietitian nutritionist, can help. Dietitians are uniquely equipped to guide dancers through the process of unraveling nutrition misinformation and increasing exposures to a wider range of food choices.

Food flexibility is something that all dancers should consider. Though it can be easy to focus solely on the physical attributes of food—such as nutrition and energy density—and how these characteristics impact performance, it’s important to remember how life experiences, like sharing a meal out with friends, contribute to our well-being. Challenging inflexible eating patterns will help to strengthen your overall relationship with food, allowing you to prioritize consistent nourishment without the added mealtime stress.