Getting the right fuel for a long rehearsal day can be as tricky as any petit allégro. Even a diet that seems packed with all the right stuff can have hidden gaps. Or it might prevent your body from fully absorbing all the muscle-healing, inflammation-fighting, joint-soothing and energy-sustaining benefits that some foods have to offer.
Good partners are key. The nutrients present in one vegetable, for example, can help your body take advantage of those in another, while other food pairings can fill in each other’s nutritional gaps. The most familiar example is rice and beans, which together provide all nine of the essential amino acids to offer a “complete protein,” helping the body build and repair tissue to keep your muscles at performance peak day after day.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food policy at New York University, explains that in total, the human diet requires roughly 50 nutrients—and they don’t function in isolation. “They are all needed in combinations for practically everything,” Nestle says.
But that doesn’t mean you need them all packaged into one neat energy bar. Far from it, says New York nutritionist Lisa Young. “There’s no magic bullet.” In fact, most complementary foods don’t even need to be eaten in the same meal—it’s the balance over the course of a day that matters. “The human digestive tract does a lot of mixing,” says Nestle. “Things eaten in the morning can mix with things eaten at dinner.”
These five power combos will help you stay in robust form, season after season.
Combination: Carb, protein and fat
Colleen McCarthy, a registered dietitian who works with professional dancers in Atlanta, recommends building most of your snacks and meals around this basic power trio, in combination with fruits and veggies, for muscle repair and sustained energy. “Carbohydrates are like a taxi to carry the protein where it needs to go quicker,” she explains. While protein works to repair muscle tissue damaged during dancing and to provide energy, fat helps you feel fuller longer. By eating all three at once, she says, “nutrients are going to trickle into your muscles, kind of like an extended release mechanism.”
Greek yogurt with almonds or walnuts and fresh fruit; whole grain rice crackers with nut butter; quinoa with vegetables and cheese; salmon with brown rice and veggies; 1 percent milkfat chocolate milk or dark chocolate coconut milk, which naturally contain carbs, protein and fat, plus minerals.
Combination: Iron and vitamin C
If you’re vegetarian, watch out: You might not be getting much iron. This nutrient helps muscles store and use oxygen, fending off fatigue. Signs of iron deficiency (the most common nutritional deficiency in the U.S.) can include feeling tired and weak, having difficulty maintaining body temperature and experiencing decreased immune function—hardly the qualities you’d want in the midst of an intense rehearsal period. While the body can readily absorb the iron present in meats, poultry and fish, you need vitamin C to get the full benefits of the iron found in plant foods. Unlike most combos, these two need to be consumed together in a single meal.
Lentil salad with lemon and red bell peppers; spinach-strawberry salad with pumpkin seeds; iron-enriched breakfast cereal with orange juice; tofu with Brussels sprouts and sesame seeds.
Combination: Vitamin D and calcium
Benefit: Your body needs vitamin D to effectively absorb calcium, which is lost in sweat and is important for strong bones as well as muscle control. Yet a recent study showed that in the winter, elite ballet dancers were particularly at risk for vitamin D deficiencies, since they don’t get much sun. Aim for a varied diet of calcium-rich items as well as vitamin D in order to help prevent fractures. However, in this case, you actually want to spread your intake throughout the day, since the body can only absorb a little calcium at a time.
The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults ages 19 to 50 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, and a little more (1,300 milligrams) for younger teens. The best sources include yogurt, milk, broccoli, arugula, dried figs and almonds. For vitamin D, naturally present in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, as well as egg yolks, experts recommend 600 international units. You can get more than twice that amount in a tablespoon of cod-liver oil. If that doesn’t exactly sound appetizing, you can also try fortified dairy products, juices and cereals, or midday sun exposure (as little as 5 to 30 minutes twice weekly).
Combination: Carotenoids and dietary fat
A diet with too little fat can leave dancers ill-equipped to absorb vitamins and carotenoids (found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables) that help with proper immune system function. That’s because your body can only absorb these molecules when fat is present—3 to 5 grams from healthy sources like avocados, nuts or olive oil can do the trick.
Carotenoids: yellow, red and orange fruits and vegetables, such as mangos, tomatoes, papaya, carrots and pumpkins, and dark leafy greens. Dietary fat: avocados, nuts and olive oil.
Combination: Complementary proteins
Protein, made up of chains of amino acids, is the key building block of muscles, organs and connective tissues. Vegetable sources of protein offer the appealing package of protein plus fiber, vitamins and minerals, without the saturated fat found in meats. But beans and other protein-rich plants typically provide only some of the amino acids that the body needs. Two or more of these “incomplete” protein sources, however, can together provide adequate amounts of all the so-called essential amino acids. Previously scientists believed they had to be eaten in the same meal, but newer studies show the body can combine complementary proteins that are eaten within the same day.
Sources: Rice and beans; hummus with pita bread; lentils with nuts or seeds.
When planning your daily menus, remember that healthy fueling doesn’t stop once the curtain goes down. Colleen McCarthy, a registered dietitian who works with professional dancers in Atlanta, likes to remind her clients to keep these power combos in mind even after dancing. “If you just finished a show, and you have a show tomorrow, you’re already fueling for the next day.”
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