Friday, 25 October 2013

Controlling body composition - nutrition

From the results of last week's survey (thank you for participating in it!) one issue was raised several times - nutrition and weight control.  So here's a guide on how to begin addressing your nutritional needs while maintaining control over body composition.

I'm fairly sure that next to no ballet dancer out there meets the full criteria of the expected dancer's physique. What's 'wanted' changes from company to company and from director to director, and more often than not the pressures a dancer feels to conform to a specific aesthetic will come from themselves as much as from others. Depending on the dance discipline you are working within however, there will be certain demands or expectations of your physique that you're going to come up against during your career.  While some physical characteristics (height for example) are set in stone, others are not, and of them body composition is an area that dancer's often strive to control.

The common thread that will run through any discipline, any company and any casting agent will be that your body can perform the required movements, and do so beautifully. Therefore dancers' bodies are required to be in peak physical condition at all times for both performance and aesthetic purposes. There often seems to be an emphasis of the aesthetic over the physical condition, with dancers looking to achieve a slyph -like physisique, regardless of the effect this may have on their physical performance.

Average body fat levels are substantially higher in professional dancers than in top level athletes due to the tendency to address physique and body composition management through excessive calorie restriction. This can lead to fatigue, decreased strength levels, malnourishment, amenorrhea, reduced bone mineral density and subsequently predisposes the dancer to avoidable injury. Too often dancers sacrifice health, strength and fitness in an attempt to achieve the perceived ideal physique.
Body composition can be controlled without sacrificing health or energy levels through manipulation of nutrition and training practices. This post will look at addressing body composition through nutrition, and a follow-up will look at the importance of training for manipulation of body composition. Addressing these two areas can have substantial positive effects on body composition. An increase in lean muscle tissue and decrease in body fat will improve the physique, boost metabolism and increase fitness parameters including strength and power.

As an artistic athlete, you should be conscious of your nutrition, and you can manipulate your dietary intake to provide both optimal nutrition while improving body composition. An athlete's or dancer's ability to perform will be significantly impacted by their nutritional status. It is imperative that in the efforts to control body composition, dancers do so in an intelligent, healthful manner, to ensure they are still providing their body with adequate energy and nutrients, and not through looking to fad diets or excessive caloric restriction.

Cut out Processed Junk

The most important point in any nutrition programme whether of health, body composition, or both, is to eat clean. It's a pretty simple concept - eat natural, simple, "clean" foods. That means nothing processed, nothing refined, nothing pumped full of e-numbers and nothing luminous in colour. Processed foods slow your metabolism, depress the immune system,  damage gut flora, cause cellular inflammation and as such your body is going to treat them as a toxin.

If you look at an ingredient list and there's numbers and unpronounceable words on it, it's probably a good idea to put it back on the shelf. Organic, fresh and local produce are the best options - the less time and less additives from the field to your plate the better. Cook from scratch when you can so you know what you're eating. Base your diet on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, free range eggs, whole grains and you're onto a good start.

Energy Requirements and Balancing Macronutrient Intake

Now that the obvious "don't eat processed crap" is out of the way - a short physiology lesson. Your body has three energy systems, and dance utilises all of them. Each energy system requires fuel provided by the diet.
  • ATP-PCr System
    • Anaerobic 
    • Produces immediate energy meaning it assists in immediate muscle contraction for short periods of high exertion exercise
    • Grand jete is an example of an action that utilises this system.
  • Glycolytic System 
    • Anaerobic
    • Produces energy through the breakdown of glucose
    • Works primarily in the skeletal muscles, using energy from carbohydrate molecules
    • Produces energy for short bursts of activity lasting up to around 2 minutes
    • Utilised in classes where short periods of dance are followed by rest periods.
  • Oxidative System
    • Aerobic (utilising oxygen to produce energy)
    • Has a higher energy producing capacity and so is utilised in endurance activities 
    • Utilised when you are dancing flat-out for 30 mins or more.

All three of these systems utilise carbohydrate as their main, if not their sole, source of fuel. Carbohydrate is stored within the body as glycogen, and can then be utilised as and when needed by the body's energy systems. In individuals participating in high levels of physical activity, glycogen stores are regularly depleted, and carbohydrates must be consumed in order to restore adequate levels.

While low-carb diets are touted as a means to control body composition and lose weight, in athletes the body's energy and therefore carbohydrate requirements are higher than in largely sedentary individuals - even if those individuals take part in physical activity every day. Glycogen stores can be run down after 90 minutes of physical activity, and so if you are rehearsing or training for 6-8 hours a day, you need to ensure you are providing your body with adequate carbohydrate throughout the day. Ketogenic diets are a bad idea for athletes. It is essential that you address your carbohydrate needs in any nutritional plan, to ensure you are adequately fueling your body's energy systems.

Although not a main energy source, protein is a vitally important macronutrient and is essential for muscle synthesis. In fact protein is essential for pretty much all of the body's cells' synthesis. Muscle is metabolic tissue - it burns calories just by being there. Body fat on the other hand is non-metabolic. So obviously if you're looking to boost your metabolism, a higher muscle to body fat ratio is important as it further speeds up the metabolism. To increase the percentage of your body that comprises muscle you need to include strength training while providing your body with adequate dietary protein to enable muscular development (there's a post on dietary protein from a little while back here).

Protein is also better at satiating hunger than the other macro-nutrients, meaning you feel fuller longer, and so will be less likely to overeat. The body's protein requirements for muscle building are not as high as many people would have you believe. However, when eating a specific amount of calories, the percentage you get from carbohydrates, proteins and fats has a significant impact on body composition, and so providing you have no health issues affecting your kidneys, a higher percentage of protein is often preferable.

Fats are essential in a dancer's diet, as they provide energy and nutrients. Fats have been demonised for years. Over-eating, and over-eating the wrong things make people fat, eating dietary fat does not. Healthy fats found in avocados, olive oil, nuts and oily fish are essential for health and for controlled body composition.

Honestly, who doesn't love avocado?!


The membrane of every cell in the human body is comprised of fatty acids; fat is needed to regulate hormone activity, is crucial for neuromuscular facilitation, reduces inflammation and when consumed in the right quantities will have no adverse affect on body composition.

If you get your fats from vegetable oils, trans fats (for those of you in the US) and other equally crappy sources, you will get fat, and likely ill. Again, cut out the junk in your diet and you'll be fine.

Practical Implications

Okay so you need carbs to refuel glycogen stores (no Atkins for you), protein for muscle synthesis and fats to control inflammation. You also want to decrease your body fat. How do you go about providing your body with ample fuel for dance, with the correct balance of nutrients, while achieving fat loss?

  • Address your carbohydrate sources - you want to move from getting the majority of your carbohydrates from starchy sources (breads, pasta, potatoes etc) to getting more of them from fruits and vegetables. Rice, quinoa, and starchy vegetables (like sweet potato) can and should be consumed (in moderation, and dependent on activity level). If you're already getting the majority of them from fruits and vegetables, increase the ratio of green vegetables.  Peoples' bodies metabolise differently, however if you're eating so no set rules apply and you need to experiment. If you start feeling excessively fatigued, up your intake again. Carbs are essential, don't be scared to eat them, just be sensible about what carbs you eat and when.
  • Get enough protein. Have a good source of protein with every meal. Unless you have an illness affecting your kidneys being above the recommended daily amount has been shown to have no negative effects, so aim for an absolute minimum of 1g per kg body-weight each day. The combination of the thermic effect plus increased satiety means that higher protein diets are likely to control appetite while boosting metabolism, at the same time as providing the body with the required nutrients for muscle growth.
  • Don't avoid fats. Seriously, they're not the devil and you need to ensure you are providing your body with enough for it to function optimally.

  • Watch your portion sizes. Eat when you're hungry and eat until you're satisfied, just don't eat for the sake of it, or until you feel sick.

So as a starting point, if you're 55kgs - eat up to 100grams CHO daily, 55-110grams protein daily. If you then find yourself genuinely hungry, increase these amounts. Simple. Don't starve yourself, just make intelligent choices about what you fuel yourself with. Include more fresh vegetable in your diet - you're probably not eating enough of them. Eat lean meat and oily fish.  Include olive oil, avocados, nuts, dairy etc daily, drink enough water (minimum 2 litres, no excuses and if you're dancing all day it should be way more).

That's it. You can manipulate and control your body composition without starving yourself, without compromising your health or performance and without having to experiment with ridiculous fad diets.  You eat to fuel yourself, your body can't perform on empty. Dancers need to remember that their body is their most important asset - it is the only tool of their trade - and they need to look after it. A starved, weak, emaciated body is no good for dance. Eat to fuel your body and be mindful of what you are consuming.

Burke, L. (2008) Dietary Carbohydrates. in: Maughan, R. (ed.) Nutrition in Sport: Olympic Encyclodpaedia of Sports Medicine.
Burke, L., Cox, G. R., Cummings, N. K. and Desbrow, B. (2001) Guidelines for Daily Carbohydrate Intake: Do Athletes Achieve Them? Sports Medicine, 31(4).
Clarkson, P.M. (1998) An Overview of Nutrition for Female Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 2(1).
Kang, J. (2008) Bioenergetics Primer for Exercise Science.
Koutedakis, Y. and Jamurtas, A. (2004) The dancer as a performing athlete: physiological considerations. Sports Medicine, 34(10).
Koutedakis, Y. and Sharp, C. (1999) The Fit and Healthy Dancer.  
Mouritsen, O. G. (2005) Life - as a matter of fat: emerging science of lipidomics.
Robson, B.E. (2002) Disordered Eating in High School Dance Students. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 6(1).
Wanke EM, Groneberg DA, Quarcoo D. (2011) Analysis and evaluation of occupational accidents in dancers of the dance theatre, Sportverletz Sportschaden.
Wilmerding, M.V., McKinnon, M.M. and Mermier, C. (2005) Body Composition in Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 9(1).


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