1. Set smaller goals.
“We all focus on the finish line, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Joy Bauer, official nutritionist for the New York City Ballet. “But it’s all the little checkpoints we pass along the way—choosing the stairs over the elevator, passing on seconds of your favorite dessert—that help us stay motivated.” Whatever your overall target is, setting short-term goals and celebrating each small achievement will help you get there.
2. Pack more snacks.
Bringing homemade food with you to the studio ensures that you’ll be able to fuel up frequently without resorting to the drive-through window. “If you’re not a morning person, prepping your food needs to be a nonnegotiable part of your nightly self-care routine, like brushing your teeth,” says Nikki Estep, a registered dietitian nutritionist who provides on-site nutrition services at Houston Ballet.
It doesn’t have to be culinary greatness, adds Emily Harrison, who counsels dancers from around the world through her business, Dancer Nutrition. “Cut up an apple, throw carrot sticks in a bag or make overnight oats with yogurt, flaxseeds and berries,” she suggests. Eating more throughout the day will also help you cut down on late-night snacking, a red flag that your body isn’t getting enough food during the day.
3. Don’t give 100 percent.
No one is perfect, so instead of following an ironclad meal plan (and punishing yourself for every errant bite), Bauer recommends a more realistic 90/10 approach: Eat healthfully 90 percent of the time and color outside the lines the other 10 percent. “That leaves you some wiggle room to enjoy the indulgent foods that you would normally try to steer clear of.” Adds Estep: “Remind yourself that all foods can fit into the big picture in moderation.”
4. Give your diet a “plant slant.” “Whole foods and plant-based carbs lower inflammation and lead to better physical performance,” says Harrison. Try making your lunch or dinner with mostly plant-based foods a few times a week. Think soup, salad, stir-fry and beyond—Harrison recommends bean-flour noodles with tomato sauce or burritos with black beans, brown rice, peppers, corn, tomatoes, spinach and guacamole. “You’ll significantly change how you feel and improve your ability to build muscle mass,” she says.
5. Rethink carbs and protein.
“The most popular myth I bust is that more protein makes food magically better for you,” says Harrison. “We have become protein-obsessed, while we fear carbohydrates, the preferred source of fuel for anyone who needs short bursts of energy, like dancers.”
Become more flexible in how you think about both wheat and meat. “I respect all the different ways that people want to eat, but I’ve seen some pretty significant nutrient deficiencies stemming from gluten-free and vegan diets,” says Estep. If you’re getting injured often or your hair is falling out, your body could be trying to tell you that your diet is not working. “If you weren’t an athlete, maybe you could pull off a vegan diet with a B-12 supplement and a multivitamin, but while you’re dancing, maybe it’s better to be a vegetarian or a pescatarian to get all the protein sources and nutrients that you need.”
6. Let your body lead you.
Devote your energy to mindfulness, not adhering to a daily calorie count, says Estep. Pay attention to when you’re hungry, and every time you eat, ask yourself how that food made you feel. For example, did it satisfy your hunger? Did it give you the energy you needed to comfortably reach the next meal or snack? If you recognize that cheeseburgers make you sluggish, you’ll be less likely to reach for one when you need solid energy.
7. Educate yourself.
Research how the right nutrients can help you in the studio. But get your information from reputable sources, says Harrison, not friends
in the dressing room or websites devoted to trendy diets. She likes nutritionfacts.org and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website (pcrm.org) for up-to-date nutrition information and tasty recipes from qualified professionals.
8. Respect your body.
“So many dancers focus on what’s wrong with their bodies instead of all the amazing things they can do, like run, leap and pirouette,” says Bauer. Appreciate the beauty of your body as it is, and, Estep adds, be realistic about what you’re asking it to do. “Dancers rely on their bodies to handle eight-hour days filled with intense, superhuman activity,” she says. “Give your body enough fuel, and you’ll be that much more powerful.”