A follower of my dance blog, “Athlete in Rhinestones,” messaged me asking about what I do for diet to stay in competitive shape. The advice I gave contains general principles of healthy eating that I believe can benefit anyone trying to be fit.
You’ve got to have good fuel for good performance, whether it’s fuel to get through a busy day with energy left over for enjoying free time or fuel to prep for a demanding competition. I don’t follow a specific diet, but there are principles I try to keep in mind always.
*Fresh is best. Fruits & veg provide vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. Keep your plate colorful with them. If they’re not saturated in salt or sugar or oil or cream, then there’s almost no such thing as too much fruit or veg. The fiber will probably fill you up before you can hit critical mass!
*Lean protein builds lean muscle. Think chicken, fish, seafood, some pork, lower-fat cuts of beef, combinations of brown rice & beans, low fat dairy such as Greek yogurt and skim milk, eggs, unsalted nuts, soy sources (don’t overdo these as it taxes the thyroid). The less processed the protein source is, the better it is for you. If it’s had tons of salt or sugar added — ahem, bacon and ham and deli meats, most meats & cheeses served via a drivethrough— stay away from it as much as you can. Has it been deep-fried or otherwise drenched in oil or butter or cream? Consider a lot of its inherent goodness undone.
*Water, water, water, water, water. It is the best thing you can drink. If dehydrated, you cannot deliver your best practice or performance. Also, our bodies can mistake thirst for hunger.
*Smaller, more frequent meals and snacks keep the flow of fuel continuous and keep hunger pangs at bay so we don’t overindulge in something quick out of desperation. My personal favorite snacks: unsalted almonds and walnuts and pistachios; hummus with carrot sticks; fresh or occasionally dried fruit.
*Treats should be just that. A special, occasional indulgence that is savored. The human mind rebels against denial. A litany of “I can’t have this, ever, no way, for the rest of my life” often leads to bigger cravings and more frequent indulgence than if we just make it a special treat that we can really enjoy. If not sure how much is too much, check out serving sizes listed on packaging.
For instance, one rather small carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contains four servings for a total of about 1000 calories in that little package. That’s a lot. That’s probably close to half of the caloric intake an active woman needs in her day and if you start considering the fat & sugar content as well, you’re looking at, hmmm, a week’s worth of treats in one item. I think calorie counting often leads to obsessiveness rather than healthiness, but knowing in general what various foods contain can be useful. For people who really know little about nutrition, there’s a food log page on the Livestrong website called Daily Plate that helps. If you eat out frequently or consume a lot of prepared foods, then perspective of what constitutes a serving can be skewed. Knowledge is power!
*Supplements are something I’m on-the-fence about. Fresh, whole foods are best by far, but too few people make those a central part of their eating plan. No one is perfect. No one can ever be perfect. You’ll probably be in great health if you drink lots of water and can make fresh, whole foods about 85 percent of your diet and accept that the other 15 is treat-centered and quicker and not nutritionally optimal. Scientists go back and forth on whether multivitamins help. I do take Vitamin D at my doctor’s suggestion, as I spend so much time in dance studios and in gyms that I don’t get all that much sunshine, the best source of it.
When I am doing more weight-training, I also add a whey protein powder to a homemade smoothie or fresh juice or soy/coconut milk right after working out so that I am maintaining or building lean muscle instead of tearing it down. The gym where I work sells Juice Plus supplements and they seem to have a lot of data behind them as a source of nutrients for folks who don’t eat well consistently. People who need to focus seriously on weight loss often use meal substitute items such as Beachbody’s Shakeology to reduce calories and increase nutrients. I’m observing its effects on members of my own family to see if I’d recommend it — not sure yet. A lot of meal-substitute and “energy” bars and drinks in the grocery are just sugar, sweeteners and caffeine. Not good.
*If you have to change many things about the way you eat to be healthier and to have optimal performance, take a positive approach, instead of a deprivation approach. Try to add one healthy thing to each day or each meal. Pace yourself. Very few people respond well to rigidity or massive, sudden change. If you are moving a lot and taking in optimal foods in healthy amounts and not overindulging in treats, you will feel and perform better and look fantastic!