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Food Basics for Dancers & Parents

A lot of dancers and parents of dancers come to me for help with food and eating. Among the many questions I get are these:

  • What food, exactly, should I be eating?
  • How much of that should I be eating?
  • Are carbs really bad for me?
  • What kind of fat is “good” fat?
  • How many calories is “too many”?
  • What should my BMI be?
  • Can I ever eat dessert if I want to be a dancer?

Today, I want to focus on the “what” of a dancer’s diet. I use diet in the very relaxed meaning of “foods you eat.” For example, I eat a vegetarian diet or my diet is pretty clean. I don’t use it in a restrictive sense like, I’m on a diet.

So, what you should be eating is whole foods: food in its most natural state.

Obvious examples are fruits and vegetables as you find them in the grocery store or farmer’s market: uncut, uncooked, unseasoned, raw, and as they come out of the ground or from the tree or stalk.

The same goes for animal products: you want fresh, organic (when possible) cuts of meat and fish. Try to buy eggs from grass-fed hens, and dairy that is organic or at least hormone-free.

It gets trickier when we look at grains because so many are refined. Aim for rice in its natural state (not white, but wild, basmati, brown, long grain) and oats that are slow-cook or steel-cut. Oats and rice that are “quick cook” or microwaveable have been refined; whole grains take a while to cook. (But they’re worth it nutritionally as well as taste-wise!)

Now, once you go about cooking the above food, you will, of course, season and alter it to fit your needs and tastes. But in your kitchen,  your whole foods won’t be subjected to any refining processes that will harm them (or you).

Each meal should have (roughly)

  • 50-60% complex carbohydrates: vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, fruits, etc. Complex carbohydrates are carbs in their natural state.
  • 25-30% protein: beans, legumes, fish, meat, eggs, cottage cheese, etc.
  • 15-25% healthy fats: from foods like avocado, salmon, sardines, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil.

Carbs: Simple & Complex

The carbs that people try to eliminate are simple carbs. Simple carbs are carbs that have been refined or altered. Anything with a sugar base – like soda and candy – as well as anything with a flour base – like cakes, breads, croissants, muffins, bagels, crackers- contain simple carbs.

Simple carbs are processed much faster in the body and generally deliver less nutrition than complex carbs. Simply stated, they are “empty calories”- calories that don’t provide your body with the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your dancing body craves.

Your Plate

Use the above percentages as a guide when looking at your plate: you should have all three of these macronutrients at every meal, and roughly in these quantities. I recommend getting that much into your routine first. Then, after you’ve got it down, start mixing up your choices so that over the course of a week, you have a nice variety of foods. (i.e. Don’t always make chicken your protein or brown rice your grain – vary it.)

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Questions about your particular diet or way of eating? Think you’d like to learn more about how dancers should be eating? Please set up a Discovery Session with me to talk about where we can start!

Ham and Cannellini Bean Soup

If you live in a cold climate, then you probably already eat lots of soup in wintertime. If you haven’t ever made soup, give it a try! It’s one of the simplest meals to make, is very forgiving, and stores well. (See here for my vegetable soup recipe.)

For busy dancers, soup keeps well in the fridge (or freezer) and heats up in an instant. If you have trouble finding energy to prepare dinner on a regular basis, having a big container of soup in your fridge makes it a lot less time-consuming. Pair with a side salad or a piece of chicken for a complete meal, or with a piece of crusty bread for a snack before collapsing into bed.

I am a big fan of bean soups as they deliver protein in a non-animal way – most of us consume a lot of animal protein and not enough beans and legumes.

Soups are also a good platform for whole grains: rice, quinoa, or a more exotic grain like freekah, can all be dumped into a pot of boiling broth to give body and nutrients to your concoction.

I made a version of this recipe in the slow cooker* over the holiday break and froze half of it. It’s thawing for tonight as my answer to yet another rainy, grey, and raw day in NYC. The silky beans take on the smoky flavor of the ham hock and the result is a deeply satisfying, rich bowl of goodness. It’s a meal in itself.

  • Chicken broth (2 quarts)
  • one smoked ham hock
  • 3-4 cans cannellini beans
  • sliced red onion
  • herbs de provence, 2 teaspoons
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the sliced red onion in a little olive oil until soft. Add herbs de provence and stir till fragrant. Pour in chicken broth, beans and finally ham hock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove the ham hock from the soup and pull off the meat. If you like ham, add the pieces back in to the soup. If not, discard.

Pour into a bowl and eat with a crusty piece of bread or a side salad.

*For the slow cooker version, use a 1-pound bag of dried cannellini beans that you’ve soaked overnight and 2 quarts chicken broth; toss everything in the slow cooker (no need to sautee anything) and put the cover on. Cook 6-8 hours on low heat. 

The Incredible Edible Egg

The Incredible Egg: Nature’s Gift to You

The egg is considered by many to be nature’s most perfect food: contained inside that little shell is a perfect source of protein (all nine essential amino acids) and an explosion of nutrients. And that old myth about the yolks being bad for you? Not true. In fact, the yolk contains almost all of the vitamins and nutrients of the egg; it’s arguably the healthier part of the egg, full of carotenoids, essential fatty acids, iron, and vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Check out the table comparing yolks and whites below.

Separating whites from yolks is another one of those weird food fads that makes no sense. Nature makes this perfect little morsel of nutrition and tastiness and the only fuss we need to make is in learning how to prepare it. (For safety cooking tips, see here.)

Most people think of eggs as a breakfast food: scrambled, fried, “omeletted,” etc., but eggs don’t have to come with bacon and toast. Here are a few ideas of how to add eggs to your diet beyond breakfast.

  • Eggs (fried, scrambled, poached) over sautéed spinach or kale
  • Hard-boiled eggs: chopped in a salad, like a Nicoise
  • Egg salad in a sandwich or on healthy crackers: try making it with olive oil instead of mayo
  • Deviled eggs: try with mustard, vinegar, olive oil, curry powder and chives instead of the usual mayo.
  • Dropped into a soup: if you stir with a fork, it will ribbon through the soup as it cooks
  • Cooked or baked in tomato sauce (a Southern Italian favorite) for dinner
  • Plain hard-boiled eggs are a great snack after dance class: your body will thank you for the protein; you can prepare them the night before and store in the fridge. Easy to make, easy to eat.

 Whites vs. Yolks: Nutrients
Nutrition: Whites vs. Yolks

Eat More, Do More

Eat More, Do More

A dancer-friend of mine once told me that she wished someone had imparted this piece of wisdom to her when she was training: rather than eating less (as many dancers seem to do), and feeling that she had to conserve her energy and be careful about not overdoing it, wouldn’t it have made more sense to eat more and do more? Yes! In fact, that is the way to go. The question is, what to eat and do more of?

When most of us think about eating more, we often think this means eating everything. We hear “eat more” and think, “Yes! I AM going to have dessert after lunch…AND dinner! And throw in that bag of chips!”

That’s not what I mean though. What I mean is to eat more whole foods, more REAL foods: more greens and veggies, more whole grains, more fruits, more beans. As athletes, dancers need adequate fuel, and that fuel cannot be substandard in quality. If you were taking a road trip across the country, would you fill your car with the dirtiest, cheapest gas you could find? You could, but you wouldn’t get very far and your car would be in a sad state after a few hours.

It’s a crude metaphor, but the same is true for your dancing body: if you fill it with processed foods, sugar, simple carbs, and/or junk food, you’re not going to much out of it. Most dancers I have worked with tend to eat very little actual food. Instead, they exist on snack foods: pretzels, nuts, rice cakes- nibbles of finger food rather than the real deal. And they usually think that they have good energy and strength; they don’t even know what they’re missing. Once we get them on a diet of whole foods, there are some pretty exciting changes like increased energy and power reserves they never experienced before.

Once you have adequate fuel, you’ll know you can do more- you’ll feel stronger and more energetic. You’ll have the fuel for the cross training which is so critical to improving. (What kind of cross training to do depends on your body, what kind of dancing you’re doing, and previous injuries you’ve sustained. Check out this post from a few weeks ago about fitness and this link to a Dance Spirit article on cross training.)

You’ll also have energy to get through your day. It used to surprise me to hear young dancers talk about how tired they were all of the time- then I realized how little they were eating and it made perfect sense. Of course you slow down when there is no fuel in the system: your body is conserving energy. And with low/no fuel, your dancing suffers. But with a full tank of whole foods that is regularly replenished, your body will be capable of amazing things. How else do we explain marathon runners, mountain climbers, and cyclists? Are we saying that dancers aren’t capable of that level of exertion? I think not. I think most dancers can do a lot more than they think- the trouble is, without adequate fuel, you’ll never know what you’re capable of.

Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

February’s Dance Magazine has a great article on bone health, “The Bone Bank” (not available online, unfortunately). If you haven’t read your copy, take a look as the author, Nancy Wozny, creates a great image of your bones as a bank that you only get to make deposits on for a few key years after which, the bank pretty much closes. (Read the whole article for the specifics!)

Wozny also gives information on common sources of calcium, which reminded me that I have been meaning to post about non-dairy sources of calcium. Some people don’t like dairy or their bodies don’t process it well, and the good news is you don’t have to drink milk or eat cheese in order to get your daily intake of calcium (which is between 800-1,000 mgs for adolescents). Try some of these options instead or in addition to your usual dairy go-tos:

  • Spinach- 1 cup- 240 mg calcium
  • Collard greens- 1 cup- 250 mg
  • Kale- 1 cup- 249 mg
  • Amaranth – 1 cup- 267 mg
  • Buckwheat- 1 cup- 114 mg
  • Chick peas- 1 cup- 150 mg
  • Sunflower seeds- 3.5 ounces- 120 mg
  • Sesame seeds (whole, not hulled)- 3.5 ounces- 1160 mg
  • Pistachios- 3.5 ounces- 131 mg
  • Orange- 1 large- 75 mg
  • Papaya- 1 medium- 75 mg

Also, remember that calcium cannot be absorbed properly without Vitamin D3- the sunshine vitamin; if you aren’t getting some daily exposure to sun, here are a few common sources of that as well:

  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Oily fish like mackerel and sardines

Keep those bones dense and strong!

 

An Apple a Day...

An Apple a Day…

In winter time, I tend to eat a lot of apples: they are one of the only fruits still available at the farmer’s market and are so versatile. Today, I’m giving you three ideas of how to get your apple a day. All are simple, fast, healthy, and delicious.

Sliced apple with nut butter: one of my go-tos, this has been made even easier to prepare thanks to single serving packets of nut butters like these from Justin’s. Mix it up by trying different types like almond or cashew butter. (Try to limit butters with added sugar.) Make it simpler by using an apple slicer/corer like this. If prepping the apples at home, dump slices into a tupperware or ziploc bag, and then toss in a teaspoon of lemon juice to keep apples from turning brown. This is a great energy snack: carbs plus protein.

Sliced apples with lemon and black pepper: I know, it sounds odd, but it is 100% delicious. A friend’s mom served this as a snack before Thanksgiving dinner and it was perfectly refreshing. Prep apples same as above, put into the bag/container with lemon juice and then add freshly ground black pepper. Try it first; judge second.

Homemade applesauce: Don’t worry if you’ve never made this before- it couldn’t be easier. Chop apples into chunks- I like to leave the skin on because it gives the sauce a nice color. I also use different types of apples to increase the flavor. Toss all apples into a pot. Add 2 inches of water. Add ground cinnamon and cloves. Cover with lid and turn heat to medium-low. Cook for between 20 and 45 minutes, checking apples every 10 minutes or so; give them a good stir to rotate the cooked ones to the top. Depending on how mushy or chunky you like your applesauce, you can start smushing it with your spoon or let it stay chunky. Taste and add cinnamon and clove until it’s the way you like it.

No, you do not need to add sugar! (Or butter.) Really, apples are very sweet, especially when cooked down. I have served this to a lot of different people and all of them have remarked on how sweet it is. They never believe me when I tell them there’s no added sugar. This is a great dessert – try having it after dinner to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Warm Soup for Cold Nights

Warm Soup for Cold Nights

On these cold winter nights, a bowl of steaming soup is a great way to warm up and get your nutrients. Soup is easy to cook and it lasts- make a big pot that you can reheat during the week, or freeze in single serving containers for a quick meal later on. (This is especially good for evenings when you are hungry for something healthy, but are too tired to cook.) Add beans for a protein boost, ribbon-cut leafy greens for vitamins, and a Tablespoon of turmeric for anti-inflammatory properties.

Recipe: Minestrone Soup

  • 2 quarts veggie broth
  • 1 can/jar tomato puree (look for BPA free cans or buy in glass)
  • 2 cans cannellini beans
  • 3 carrots, cubed
  • 3 pieces of celery, cubed
  • 1 big onion, chopped
  • 3 zucchinis, cubed
  • 1 bunch of collard greens, cut into ribbons**
  • Grated parmigiano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon each of dried herbs: oregano, basil, tarragon, etc.
  • Optional: tablespoon of basil pesto.

Heat the carrot, onion, and celery over low heat in 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. When tender, add dried herbs (if you like them!): oregano, basil, tarragon are my go-tos. Stir until herbs become fragrant. Then add broth and tomato puree and beans. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 mins. Add cubed zucchini and collard greens. Simmer for 10 mins. Salt and pepper to taste. If you like pesto, adding a Tablespoon to this soup will add a rich flavor. Serve with a sprinkling of grated parmigiano cheese on top.

** To cut leafy greens into ribbons, simply place two leaves together, roll like a cigar, and then cut thin strips through the rolled cigar. If ribbons are too long for your taste, cut the big leaves in half lengthwise before you roll them.

Nutrition at the Birmingham Royal Ballet: a Mixed Bag

 

This article about the nutrition of dancers with Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancers Victoria Marr and Matthew Lawrence, got me thinking. If you haven’t read it, take a peek.  Here’s what it’s got me thinking about…

1. Two-thumbs-up for the shift away from telling “heavier” dancers to stop eating, and instead directing them to company resources like nutritionists.

Even better that “things have gone to the nth degree with nutrition” (Marr) and dancers are even getting their bone density tested. (A wellness advocate’s dream…)

2. Two thumbs down for the ever-rigid ballet aesthetic which turns away beautiful dancers if they “don’t have the right shape.”

“You still have to be quite skinny and you have to have long, lean muscle. There’s no getting away from that. Ballet is all about aesthetics,” says Marr. I know this, but it still pains me.

3. Two half-sies thumbs for both interviewees eating whatever they like, according to the article. It’s great that they do not feel constrained, but it’s a little sad that they confess to eating “rubbish,” including “Kit-Kat bars” and “chips.”

On the one hand, they are professional adults who can eat whatever they want, but with so much access to nutrition and care, how did they end up with such low-quality snacks? I’m all for splurging, but aim high and go for the good stuff. (Like…Mast Brothers chocolate, for example. Why waste your calories on junk?)

4. Two palms up in the “huh?” gesture for Marr’s conflicting comments on food amounts: on the one hand, she says there is a “preconceived idea that dancers have to keep their food intake down in order to keep quite skinny,” which she claims is untrue, but then she confirms it by saying, “I don’t need to eat inordinate amounts of food to get the energy I need. You don’t really. It’s a myth.”

So, dancers don’t have to eat “inordinate amounts” of food to get the energy they need?

Problems: 1) “inordinate” is too subjective: what does that mean, exactly? and 2) everyone is different.

While Marr may not need to eat a lot, that generalization shouldn’t be applied to all dancers. Furthermore, many dancers do lower their overall caloric intake in order to achieve the proper look. By the time they become professionals, they are so used to eating that way it may feel totally normal. It doesn’t change the fact that compared to an average person, dancers eat considerably less food.

5. And, finally, two thumbs up for proper screening. That neither Marr nor Lawrence have faced issues around their weight at BRB made me think about the selection process. Most companies have a rigorous screening process wherein dancers who do not fit the aesthetic of the company are not usually hired. I used to think this was terrible, but I have come around to understanding the potential good of this practice.

If a company has a strict aesthetic, then I think it’s correct that they screen and hire appropriately. Is there anything more disheartening than landing the much-coveted contract, only to be told you must lose weight?

Until the ballet aesthetic changes worldwide, dancers should not be hired at one weight on the condition that they drop to another before they are considered stage-worthy. Surely, this practice leads to a greater number of physical and psychological problems.

Ultimately, I like to think the ballet world will be forced to alter its aesthetic to accept more “normal”-sized dancers. But until then, it seems imperative to not put dancers in the position of having to lose weight in order to keep their jobs, which is why being particular about the aesthetic right out of the gate seems like a better choice to me.

But enough of what I thought. What was your impression of the article?

Back-On-Track Winter Green Salad

Back-On-Track Winter Green Salad

I am the first to admit that eating a cold green salad in the heart of winter can be a challenge if your body craves warm and hearty foods like mine does. That said, greens are always in order, no matter the season, so it’s time to get creative.

This recipe calls for arugula, a bitter, dry green which pairs well with olive oil and parmigiano cheese. A lot of brands carry arugula in those plastic boxes, already washed. This is one of those “cheats” that I support- anything that gets your meal to you faster without compromising your health!

The recipe also calls for fennel, a bulbous, white, crunchy vegetable that grows in the ground. If you’ve never had fennel before, give it a try; it tastes a bit like licorice, and is crisp and fresh-tasting. In fact, in Italy, a slice of fennel is often served at the end of a meal to refresh your palate before moving on to dessert.

It’s also healthy, delivering 17% of your recommended daily amount of Vitamin C and 10% of your Potassium.

If you like shopping at your local farmer’s market, which I highly recommend, this salad makes use of ingredients you can find in late fall. If you’re a supermarket-goer, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding arugula or fennel year-round.

Ingredients

  • Fresh arugula, one bunch
  • Half of a fennel bulb, sliced into slivers
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings (You can shave your cheese with a mandolin or the wide section on your grater.)

Mix these ingredients, then toss with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

The peppery, bitterness of the arugula is nicely offset by the parmigiano cheese, which also adds saltiness. I think the freshness of the fennel is what makes this salad so healthy-tasting. It’s also light, which is great for in between classes or rehearsals, and late at night when you need something but don’t want to fill yourself too much.

Cook Once ... Eat All Week

Cook Once and Eat All Week

This post was originally published on Beyond the Gold– NY International Ballet Competition’s blog. It’s on how you can cook and eat homemade meals all week without spending your life in the kitchen. It’s easier than you might think….!

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I happen to love the phrase, “Cook once, eat twice.” But in my kitchen, it’s cook once, eat four or five times. I love to eat well, but I am not willing to spend a lot of time cooking during the week unless it’s a family event. So, here are some of my tips for cooking/prepping once and eating many times- these are very simple ideas, but I hope they get you thinking!

I usually pick a day when I cook three or four main ingredients and then have them in the fridge as building blocks for the week. My trick is that I cook them in the simplest way possible, usually steaming for veggies and greens and basic prep (without flavoring) for beans and grains. That way, every time I eat, I can add different flavors to create a whole new dish.

For example: Ingredients:

  • Kale: steamed
  • Wild Rice: boiled
  • Cannellini beans: soaked for 24 hours, then boiled until soft.

Meals

Warm or cold

  • Mix kale, wild rice and cannellini beans
  • Toss with tahini, splash of lemon, ground black pepper, salt

Cold

  • Slice up and add cherry tomatoes, avocado, pine nuts (toast them if you like)
  • Add cold kale
  • Toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper

Cold

  • Cannellini beans and wild rice
  • Add feta, cucumber, kalamata olives, tomatoes
  • Toss with olive oil, vinegar, fresh oregano/basil, salt and pepper

Warm

  • Saute cannellini beans and wild rice with sesame oil, salt and pepper
  • As a side, sauté the kale in sesame oil with some sesame seeds

In addition to these simple ideas, you now have a green, a grain and a protein, all ready to be eaten in any other creative way you want.

Some other staples that are great to cook ahead of time and keep on hand as building blocks are:

  • Quinoa (good cold, hot and as a breakfast cereal)
  • Brown Rice
  • Kasha (Buckwheat)
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Chard
  • Kale
  • All beans: so good hot or cold and very easy to dress up in different flavors