We've all heard creative ways to estimate a serving size of food: a checkbook of fish, a deck of cards of chicken, half a baseball of ice cream. (That's according to the National Institutes of Health.) But do those measurements have any real bearing on dancers and their diets? Nutrition experts say not exactly.
Those serving descriptors—a Ping-Pong ball of peanut butter, a pancake the size of a CD—are not definitive by any means, says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist who has written a series of food guides for athletes and works with dancers in the Boston area. "Each person's budget is so different," she says, referring to caloric requirements. "Take a six-foot man versus a five-foot woman: Is six cubes of cheese enough for a man?"
Whether a dancer should be eating less or more than a suggested serving depends on her age, size and level of activity, whether she's trying to gain, lose or maintain her weight and what other foods she's consuming during that meal and that day. A serving is a standard unit of measurement, Clark explains. That doesn't mean it's the right portion for everyone.
Judging portion-size for a dancer means knowing how much food it takes to give her all the nutrients and calories she needs to fuel her dancing. Clark believes the body is the best calorie-counter. Ideally, dancers—and everyone else, for that matter—would eat when they're hungry and stop when they're content (not stuffed). If a dancer thinks she's eating well, but finds herself binging on weekends or eating the whole basket of bread at a restaurant, those could be signs her body is trying to make up for a calorie deficit.
But it's not uncommon for a dancer to want to plan or measure her food more precisely. That's fine, as long as she does it correctly, says Linda Hamilton, a dance psychologist specializing in eating disorders and occupational distress and author of The Dancer's Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition. Both Clark and Hamilton agree that if a dancer wants to measure meals or count calories, she should consult a registered dietitian. It's difficult to estimate your own caloric needs, and dancers often aim too low and avoid healthy fats. Hamilton points out that a person burns an estimated 1,200–1,400 calories a day just sitting still, being alive. Dancers need to consume well beyond that, probably about 2,200 calories per day for females, more for males, to maintain a healthy weight. A dietitian can give dancers a definitive number and can break down how many grams of protein, carbs and fat they need per day, so that they can plan balanced meals.
Clark recommends clients break down their daily allotment into four evenly sized meal "buckets": breakfast, lunch, what she calls a second lunch and dinner. This keeps blood sugar balanced. (Clark likes the bucket image because it's contained and portable, which translates well for busy athletes, who eat on the go.) Often, people need to redistribute some food from dinner to breakfast and lunch to even out their meals.
Hamilton knows some dancers who prefer bigger meals with small snacks in between. She says that's all right, too, as long as dancers eat regularly and—most important—give their bodies the carbohydrates and protein they need for energy before class. That's especially essential in the morning, a time when many dancers prefer to avoid eating. "You don't have to eat things that bloat you, like big glasses of juice and salads," she says. "Have a good breakfast of egg whites, protein and some carbohydrates—fruit, nuts, whatever you want to eat. It should be a balance of carbs, protein and fat."
Clark also emphasizes the importance of a diverse diet that prioritizes complex carbs, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. "Each meal should have at least three, if not four, different kinds of foods," she says. "Oatmeal is not balanced. Cook it in milk, add a tablespoon of peanut butter and toss in an apple."As much as dancers depend on their teachers for advice, Hamilton says you should resist offering portion or diet suggestions to students. "It's good to have resources where they can go meet somebody," she says. (See below.) Clark agrees. "A teacher might have their own views, and a blogger might have their opinions," she says, "but there's something called science." And that's what dancers need to listen to, cassette tapes of bread aside.
Beat the Bloat
• High-fat foods. Fat takes a while to digest, so it keeps you full, but the breakdown process can cause gassiness.
• Beans and lentils are high in fiber and protein, but they contain sugars that can only be broken down in the intestine, not the stomach, which causes gas.
• Sugars and starches in fruits and vegetables like brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, prunes and apricots can also cause temporary bloating and gas.
• Chewing gum. Artificial sweeteners like sorbitol in gum can cause gas, and gum-chewing causes you to swallow air, which contributes to bloating.
If you experience frequent bloating, talk to your doctor.
• Eatright.org includes a database of registered dietitians by location.
• Scandpg.org has a network of sports nutritionists and helpful nutrition fact sheets for athletes in the arts.