Don't just trust what others say you should—or shouldn't—be eating. Photo by Toa Haftiba/Unsplash
When it comes to what you should be eating, rumors often catch on like wildfire. Dietitian Rachel Fine, who works with dancers in New York City, shares the most misguided nutrition strategies she's recently encountered.
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.”