Your Body: Unappetizing

August 31, 2015

How a dieting app led one dancer down a dangerous path

About three years ago, I came to the disappointing realization that I should probably lose weight. I’d left the small Ohio company I’d danced for since college and followed my then-boyfriend to Tucson, hoping to get my MFA at the University of Arizona so I could teach dance in higher education while continuing to perform. In the new city, I was no longer taking classes or performing as often, and I quickly gained 10 pounds. At my UofA audition, I glanced around at the long, lean dancers and couldn’t believe how out of shape I was.

Even when I’d been performing regularly, at 5′ 5″ and 120 pounds I was never your traditional waif of a ballet dancer. My body was muscular, with developed calves and thighs (thanks, Dad). When I told people what I did for a living, my answer was always met with surprise.

When I received the rejection letter from UofA, the thought haunted me: I don’t look like a dancer. I decided I needed to take action. I wanted to get into grad school, I wanted to perform and I wanted to be taken seriously. I had no idea how to lose weight; I’d never had to “watch what I ate” other than watching the plate go from full to empty. A friend of mine recommended one of the leading weight-loss apps as a free way to diet without a structured meal plan or point system. That sounded perfect for me.

I created an account, input my height, current weight, my goal weight and how much I wanted to lose per week. I selected one and a half pounds per week and the app calculated my daily caloric budget: 1,163 calories—an extremely low number for an active woman. As I lost weight, my daily budget decreased even further.

But knowing nothing about nutrition, I followed the app’s advice religiously. I measured, scrutinized, weighed and budgeted every calorie. Like an electronic food diary, the app recorded all of my foods. For example, breakfast might be Greek yogurt with fruit and granola (230 calories); lunch would include a low-fat tortilla, 3 ounces albacore tuna in water, a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and a quarter cup of lemon juice (325 calories); dinner might be chicken veggie pasta (430 calories) and I’d have an orange (62 calories) as a snack, adding up to a total of 1,047 calories for the day.

In a couple of months, I dropped from 130 pounds to 108. The app congratulated me on reaching my goal and switched into “maintain” mode, suggesting that I now consume 1,800 calories per day. Unfortunately, after being undernourished for so long, my body hoarded these extra calories like precious gems. I immediately began gaining weight, so I went back to eating fewer calories again.

Meanwhile, I’d started receiving compliments on how great I looked. I would be asked, without prompting, if I was a dancer. With a new sense of confidence, I re-auditioned for grad school and was accepted. I was thrilled and thought my body looked fantastic.

Everything else, however, suffered. I was teaching ballet, working on my Pilates certification and taking as many classes as I could. But keeping up my lean physique was incredibly demanding. I was afraid to go out for dinner with friends because I didn’t know how many calories would be in the meal. I would weigh my body daily and hate myself if I gained a pound after eating popcorn, not realizing that I was simply retaining water from the salt. I was irritable and tired all the time. My joints began to ache and I felt less flexible. Even when I wanted to dance, I didn’t have the energy. I had to take naps in between classes. My brain felt foggy and I struggled to retain the exercises I’d taught only hours before. I eventually stopped receiving compliments and started noticing more looks of concern.

But I pushed all this aside until my first semester of grad school when I stopped menstruating. I was terrified to realize my tight, achy joints might be signs of calcium deficiencies caused by my inactive reproductive system.

I started seeing a nutritionist, and with her help, I have been working to get my metabolism back on track. Week by week, we have been slowly adding more calories into my diet. She looked at the things I was craving, like an insatiable amount of peanut butter and ice cream, and pinpointed the nutrients my body was lacking: mostly healthy fats and calcium. We made adjustments, like using more olive-oil–based dressings for healthy fats, and full-fat cheeses for additional fat and calcium. We also spread out my meals and I snack every two to three hours on things like dried fruits, nuts, lean proteins and cheese to keep my metabolism running. I am now consuming around 1,300 calories to maintain a healthier weight of 112 to 114 pounds, and I will continue to add more calories into my diet until I can eat a healthy 1,800.

I have since graduated and now dance with a contemporary company called Artifact Dance Project. The extra calories make it possible to get through my days of teaching and rehearsals, but I am still working to resist the urge to pack my pocket-sized food scale in my purse when my husband and I go out to eat. I am still guilty of using the app to look up the calories in foods I’m unfamiliar with. But as my nutritionist has guided me to find the right eating plan for my goals, I’ve learned so much about fueling my body. She has taught me to appreciate what energizes and fills me—and how much more important that is than any number on an app.


Ask the Expert

Dietitian Leslie Bonci, who works with dancers at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, offers her advice.

What’s the minimum number of daily calories a dancer should aim for?

You expend about 500 to 1,000 calories by dancing six to seven hours. But the body also uses a baseline of calories just to function—about 10 calories per pound of body weight. So a 130-pound dancer needs at least 1,800 calories.

What is a realistic weight-loss goal?

No more than one pound per week. That way what you’re losing is more likely to be extra body fat rather than lean muscle mass.

Can solely counting calories be dangerous nutrition-wise?

Definitely. If somebody only eats 1,000 calories of broc­coli, she’ll be sorely deficient in fat and protein.

What’s a better way to lose weight?

Look at the proportions of foods on your plate. If a female dancer’s goal is to become leaner, she wants a hand-sized amount of protein (chicken, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt); a very tightly balled fist of carbs (rice, pasta, bread); a thumb-sized amount of fat (peanut butter, avocado, oil); then two-fifths of the plate should be fruit or vegetables.

Can weight-loss apps help?

Apps keep dieters accountable, which is helpful. But even better is to take “healthy selfies”: pictures of your plate. That gives you an eyeball of your proportions and a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish. —Jennifer Stahl