Foods to keep you fueled, fit and focused
If summer break meant a slower schedule, later nights and a slip in your healthy-eating routine, it’s time to get your nutrition habits back on track before hitting the studio again. Eating right is essential to maintaining high energy, a sharp memory, disease-free body, positive mood and the low stress level you’ll need to be in tip-top teaching shape for the coming year. Just think, the better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of your students. Here’s advice on performance-boosting foods.
Eat breakfast. This may seem like the oldest piece of nutrition advice, but it’s also one of the hardest to follow. Skipping this meal really does make it hard to keep energy levels high during a full day of teaching. Breakfast should consist of carbs, protein and fiber. Traditional oatmeal (there’s not much fiber in instant), yogurt and an orange (juice has little fiber) would be a healthy option. If you’re not hungry in the morning, eat dinner earlier the night before, and if you wake up ravenous, you probably didn’t get enough sleep. “Less than six hours of sleep a night makes your body release hormones that make you hungrier in the morning,” says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who works with performers, and co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition.
Consume a meal or snack between classes, or every four to five hours. “You want a couple of quality carbohydrates with a protein. That’s going to induce the most stable blood sugars that can prolong your energy,” says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. “Say good-bye to sugary and white-bread products. You’ll be less cranky and less reactive. Good carbs would be whole grains, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa and couscous.” Easily transportable, balanced snacks include low-fat cottage cheese and almonds, trail mix with dried fruit and walnuts, yogurt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a whole-wheat bagel and string cheese with whole-grain crackers.
Avoid fat-free and low-fat processed foods—they can actually hinder the ability to stabilize your energy level. “Anything that says low fat means high sugar,” says Hamilton, “and when you consume too much sugar, there’s a release of insulin, then there’s a drop, so you’re going to be hungry and tired. This can also set you up for bingeing.”
Hydration is also important, especially when constantly moving. “Many people think that they’re tired and hungry when in fact they’re dehydrated,” says Bauer, who recommends drinking 9 to 13 cups of fluid a day. Water (obviously), seltzer, tea and even coffee (see below) are fine choices, but limit so-called energy drinks and vitamin-enhanced water. “They are expensive and you can overload on some of the vitamins in there,” says Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
If you teach 15 classes a week and have trouble remembering what combination you gave to which group, your lack of memory most likely stems from having too much going on. However, a drop in blood sugar could also be the culprit. “If you’re in a semi-starved state after you’ve skipped a meal, then you can become less focused,” says Swistak.
Certain diet choices can help. Red foods, such as apples, cherries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and beets, have been linked to improved memory, as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. “These are integrated into the structure of your brain cells and help on all levels of brain development, including memory and focus, mood and cognitive function,” says Bauer. “If you can’t get enough fish and you don’t mind popping large pills, supplements are a good second choice.”
Eating a varied diet does more than keep your taste buds happy—it can help ward off chronic diseases. Your job as a dance teacher keeps your muscles toned, but ironically, always being on the go means you may be at risk for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. This is because your body requires an extraordinary amount of oxygen, which can cause cells to produce body-damaging oxidants called free radicals.
Luckily, fruits, vegetables, beans and grains contain the antioxidants needed to neutralize theses harmful radicals; however, each individual food source has only some of the thousands of needed antioxidants. “Research and government guidelines recommend 9 to 13 raw fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors to be in your diet every day,” says Toni Branner, co-author of The Care & Feeding of a Dancer. “Each color has different nutrients.”
Taking in as many nutrients as possible doesn’t have to be complicated. Branner suggests packing dried fruit and raw almonds in your purse or work bag, always eating berries on your cereal, ordering sides of veggies or beans in restaurants and including at least five different colors in your salads. While research has shown that the best way to receive necessary nutrients is through actual food, Swistak says taking a multivitamin can add a little piece of insurance.
If your busy schedule occasionally leads to snacking on junk food or eating fast-food meals, gaining pounds isn’t the only concern. Not making time to properly nourish your body signifies that you’ve taken on more responsibility than you can handle, which can result in depression or burnout. Try to slow down and have at least one meal a day by yourself outside (or near a window), while listening to music. “Taking regular 15-minute breaks can help prevent burnout,” says Hamilton, “and research has shown that looking at trees and listening to music can help regulate moods.”
Eating foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, papaya, mango, bell peppers and kiwis, can help keep stress levels down, too. Because this vitamin isn’t stored in the body, you need to consume a helping each day. Aim for around 1,500 milligrams—any more can cause cramping and even kidney stones.
Staying strong, healthy and sound means choosing the right foods to eat, and knowing when to consume the right things is equally essential. Most importantly, pay close attention to your blood sugar level. If you notice a drop (you’ll become cranky or a little irritable), make it a priority to refuel. DT
If drinking coffee helps jumpstart your day, there’s good news. You can have your java (in limited amounts) and still be doing the body good. “We used to think that caffeine was counterproductive to healthy bones and was dehydrating, but the latest research shows that you have to drink more than 575 milligrams for it to do harm,” says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who works with dancers. That’s about three cups of coffee a day—but not grandes from Starbucks, which are equivalent to three cups each.
“Research has also shown that coffee helps to hydrate your system, because the water that goes into that cup of coffee goes toward your daily fluid allotment,” says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. “When you get a cup of coffee, the caffeine hits its peak within 20 minutes and stays there for about an hour, after which it begins to die down. It can linger in your system for anywhere from three to eight hours.”
A risk for coffee drinkers isn’t so much getting shaky or nervous (if these symptoms happen to you, ease up on your daily ration), it’s that they tend to get less calcium than their non-caffeine-drinking counterparts. “Let’s say you’re a coffee drinker and you’re not drinking milk or taking supplements. Then you’re possibly going to be deficient in calcium, so I just say drink milk with your coffee,” says Hamilton.
Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer based in New York City.
Photos from top: ©iStockphoto.com/Luis Albuquerque; ©iStockphoto.com/Vassiliy Mikhailin