Simone Messmer was 19 the first time she used cocaine. She was at another company's gala when someone pulled out a bag of the white powder. There, at the coat check counter, party guests took turns snorting the drug. "I was hesitant, but at the time I was willing to try anything once," she says. "Everyone around me was getting hyped up. But for me, it made me feel grounded."
She would later learn that her reaction—feeling grounded instead of hyped—probably had to do with undiagnosed ADHD. The sensation kept Messmer, then a corps member at American Ballet Theatre, returning to the drug multiple times a week for a year. And it nearly jeopardized her career.
Perfectionist, type-A dancers often try to squeeze a million things into their days, waking up early to cross-train or staying up late to finish one more side project.
But the next time you're tempted to skimp on your slumber, consider this: The longer you sleep, the more benefits you get from it. With each sleep cycle, your body spends more time in that deep, restorative REM stage, and releases another hit of testosterone and human growth hormone, both of which facilitate physical repair.
Ballet superstar Misty Copeland admits that she used to be an epic stress eater, polishing off a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in one sitting.
Today, though, she's become much savvier about fueling her body, building strong muscles as well as a lean silhouette. In her latest book, Ballerina Body, Copeland shares her go-to health strategies, offering personal tips and recipes.
Many are as simple as mixing chopped cauliflower with yogurt for a mashed potato alternative, or pouring granola into a bowl lined with peanut butter for a sweet treat filled with fiber and protein.
Available March 21, Grand Central Publishing. $30.
Earlier this month, the health journal BMJ released what could be a secret to living a longer, healthier life. The key: Eat spicy food. According to the large study, which analyzed the diets of more than 485,000 Chinese people for an average of at least seven years, those who frequently ate spicy foods, like chili peppers, sizably reduced their death risk.
Here's what the research found: Eating hot food one or two times a week reduced risk of death by 10 percent when compared with consuming spicy foods less than once a week. Those who ate hot food six or seven times weekly reduced their risk of death by 14 percent.
What's more is that participants who ate such cuisine had lower rates of cancers, respiratory diseases and ischemic heart disease. Though this particular study did not discuss possible explanations for the positive results, it did note that previous studies have found capsaicin, which gives chili peppers their kick, to have anti-inflammatory effects.
What does it all mean? It's certifiable scientific cause to spice up your diet! Here are four simple and healthy ways to kick it up a notch.
- Sprinkle red pepper flakes on pasta or pizza or mix into omelettes. Add curry, cumin or chili powder to soups. If you're making turkey burgers, add a dash of hot sauce to the ground meat before forming it into patties. A good friend of mine swears by sautéing broccoli and serving it with a drizzle of buffalo sauce. Bottom line: Experiment, and eat up!
- Buy (or make) a different flavor of hummus. Try swapping out your regular garlic or roasted red pepper hummus for Sabra's Supremely Spicy flavor, which includes chili pepper, red pepper and a blend of spices, or the Spicy Three Pepper variety from Athenos, with jalepenos and red and green peppers. Cucumbers and carrots just became more appealing.
- Eat you way around the world. Mexican, Indian, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Ethiopian cuisines (just to name a few) all feature dishes that bring the heat. When eating out, be adventurous. Staying in? Shop the corner bodega or your local farmers' markets for peppers, spices and sauces that conjure up global flavors.
- If you can't take the heat, that doesn't mean you have to shy away from spicy foods altogether. Just have a glass of milk on hand—not water. Dairy helps neutralize the intensity of capsaicin. You can also add a sprinkle of shredded cheese or a dollop or cottage cheese or Greek yogurt. It's a sneaky way to boost your calcium intake while making your favorite spicy dishes more tolerable.
Sugar is the latest nutritional whipping boy, but do dancers need to worry?
Like many dancers, Natalie Leibert prides herself in being conscious of what she’s putting into her body. An on-again-off-again vegan, the Hubbard Street 2 apprentice recently decided to cut all foods with added sugar from her diet, only eating natural sugars like those in fruit. She quickly noticed a difference in her dancing: “I have more energy throughout the day now,” she says. “And after lunch, it’s so much easier for me to jump right back into rehearsal without feeling weighed down.”
Leibert isn’t alone. Cutting back on sugar has recently become an increasingly popular trend among dancers. Although Americans typically consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily, the American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 6 teaspoons per day, and men no more than 9. The new U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest only 10 percent of your daily calories come from sugar, or about 12 teaspoons. That means just one 20-ounce soft drink can put you over the limit.
Why are the guidelines so strict? Sugar has negative effects throughout the body, and is linked to a range of ailments from obesity to tooth decay, heart disease to diabetes, and high blood pressure. But do dancers really have to ignore their sweet tooth in order to stay in prime shape?
Sweet and Sour
The main qualm most nutritionists have with sugar is that it provides empty calories, meaning it doesn’t add any vitamins or nutrients to your diet. If sugar-packed foods replace muscle-building protein, heart-healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, your health can begin to decline from being deficient in nutrients, says Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist for the School of American Ballet. She adds that sugar doesn’t offer any benefits—our bodies would be perfectly healthy without any of it in our diets.
For dancers, sugar can also have troublesome side effects, like low energy, decreased immunity and weight gain. “While simple sugar can give you a temporary energy high, it’s often followed by a much bigger crash,” says Boston Ballet consulting nutritionist Jan Hangen. While the glucose in sugar causes a surge of dopamine to your brain, making you feel energized, repeated dopamine spikes can actually desensitize that center over time, so you’ll struggle to get a similar rush in the long run. In addition, studies have shown that simple sugars can cause a 50 percent drop in the ability of white blood cells to attack bacteria, so you may be more likely to get sick after a sugar binge. Highly caloric sugary foods can also lead to weight gain when they’re routinely added to a dancer’s diet: Since eating sugar triggers the body to produce insulin, which blocks production of leptin—the hormone that tells your brain you’re full—it can actually make you hungrier.
So do dancers need to avoid sugar altogether? Not if you have an otherwise balanced diet. Skolnik says a healthy diet can include 10 to 15 percent of daily calories that are “discretionary.” So if you eat 2,400 calories per day, and most calories come from healthy food, 240 to 360 of those calories can come from somewhere else. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than half of that—the 100 calories found in 6 teaspoons of sugar for women.
Dancers with a serious sweet tooth may find these rules nearly impossible to follow. “Sugar has been called as addictive as cocaine by some researchers,” says Emily Harrison, dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet. “The more you eat, the more you crave.” That’s because the brain needs more and more of it to get the same dopamine rush it once got from just a little.
But the real culprit behind cravings for sweets typically has more to do with what you’re eating throughout the day. If you’re starving by the time you get home, your body will probably crave something sugary. “When people think they’re craving chocolate, they’re actually just craving calories,” Hangen says. “Because the body is focused on getting food, the mind goes to the foods that give the most pleasure.” Harrison encourages dancers who fall victim to post-dance sugar binging to eat something small and light every three hours throughout the day. This will manage their energy levels and ensure they’re not ravenous by the time they get home.
Keep it in Check
Dancers who prefer savory foods should still be on the lookout. Sugar is found in many pasta sauces, salad dressings, ketchups, chips, cereals and sports beverages. Check labels for the word “sugar” and the many disguises it takes: corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice and ingredients ending in “ose,” like dextrose, glucose, sucrose, fructose, isomaltulose, maltose or trehalose.
One way to only get a small amount of sugar is to stick to natural sugars, like Leibert does. While natural sugar isn’t fundamentally different than added sugar, this will ensure that it’s filling up less of your daily caloric intake and you will also be getting nutritious vitamins and antioxidants. Plus, the fiber in fruits and vegetables can slow down your body’s digestion of glucose, so you’ll avoid energy spikes and crashes.
For those who crave a little extra sweetness, Skolnik suggests buying unsweetened foods and adding sugar yourself. “If you buy plain yogurt, you can control the amount of sugar you add—or try adding real fruit,” Skolnik says. “You can eventually train your palette to enjoy the natural taste of foods with less sugar.” Even adding an entire packet of sugar to plain cereal will be less than what is in most pre-sweetened brands.
Ultimately, rewarding yourself with a sweet treat once in a while could actually do less long-term damage than swearing off sweets altogether. “For some people, saying ‘I can never eat chocolate’ makes them only want chocolate, so they’ll end up binging,” says Skolnik, who encourages dancers not to beat themselves up for a little indulgence. “Sugar is not the root of all evil. It’s certainly not nutritious, but you don’t need to eat perfectly to eat healthily.”
You may think that adding a packet of Equal, Splenda or Stevia to your morning coffee is the best option. After all, there are no calories in artificial sweeteners. But nutritionists agree that the chemicals are actually worse than the real stuff. “Most artificial sweeteners are between 400 and 600 times sweeter than actual sugar, so they’re designed with the purpose of tricking our taste buds into thinking you have calories coming in,” says nutritionist Emily Harrison. “This initiates a metabolic response to sweetness, which can be dangerous, and studies have linked artificial sweeteners to long-term weight gain. You’re also getting your taste buds used to something that is so powerful that you’re not going to be able to appreciate more subtle flavors, like the natural sweetness in a strawberry or butternut squash.”
How much is in your favorite snacks?
|Chobani||Lemon Blended Greek yogurt||5.3 oz||3 tsp|
|Go Raw||Sweet Spirulina Bites||28 g||2 1/2 tsp|
|Kashi||GoLean Crunch! cereal||3/4 cup||2 3/4 tsp|
|Lärabar||Banana Bread bar||51 g||4 tsp|
|Peeled Snacks||Apple-2-The Core dried apples||40 g||4 1/2 tsp|
|Quaker||Instant Oatmeal Apples and Cinnamon||43 g||2 1/2 tsp|
|vitaminwater||Revive Fruit Punch||20 fl oz||6 1/2 tsp|
|ZICO||Natural Coconut Water||11.2 fl oz||2 1/2 tsp|