Nourish Your Body for Performance

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"Eating every three hours or so can reduce energy slumps and food preoccupation."

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A quick, mythbusting guide on how to properly nourish your body for movement performance. Together we will discuss:

Fumi Somehara is surrounded by fruit and vegetables

Written by Fumi Somehara

Principle Dietician, DDD Centre for Recovery.

What do you wish all performers knew?

Eating can enhance your performance, but not-eating can’t. What I mean by that is, weight loss and dieting are not the magic pills to improve performance, health, or your worth as a performing artist. You deserve to nourish your body in the way that is most suitable for you.

A healthy relationship between food and eating for performance is void of dieting. It is about understanding your body’s unique needs and responding to it unconditionally. Your body can perform optimally when it is nourished physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, and culturally.

Everyday Performance Nutrition

Building a solid foundation for a body to perform well requires consistent and appropriate nourishment.

Eat regularly and adequately throughout the day​

This can help improve digestion, gut function, and metabolism, and reduce the risk of extreme types of eating (restriction / binge-eating). Eating every three hours or so can reduce energy slumps and food preoccupation. Eat from all food groups including grains, animal/plant proteins, dairy, fruits and vegetables to minimise nutritional deficiencies.

Hydrate well​

Sip water and a variety of fluids throughout the day, instead of gulping down in one go. Staying hydrated will help improve your performance, minimise fatigue, and prevent cramps. Your thirst and urine colour can be a helpful indicator of your hydration status: if urine colour is dark, it’s most likely that you need more fluids (note: some vitamin supplements can change your urine colour and hence make this inaccurate).

Build strong bones

First, you need to be eating enough for your bones to become strong. On top of that, having three servings of dairy a day (e.g. yoghurt, milk, cheese) can build and maintain strong bones. If you are allergic to dairy, then other alternatives such as soy and soy products, almonds, and fish with edible bones are good sources of calcium too.

And most importantly, don’t diet.

Some foods won’t have much nutritional value, but if they give you social, emotional, or cultural nourishment, there is no reason to ban or demonise those foods. When you have them, enjoy them, be intuitive and mindful, and then move on.

For the full one-page version of the guideline please click here.

Nutrition on Performance Day

There are a few Do’s and Don’ts that can further optimise your performance on performance-day, when integrated on top of the everyday performance nutrition guides.

Do

Eat breakfast – whether it’s a matinee or an evening performance, start your day with adequate breakfast.

Do

Keep single serve snacks in your bag for easy refuelling throughout the day

Do

Go for easily digested foodsand meals before performance (see examples below)

Do

Have an adequate meal for recovery after the performance. (E.g. pasta; rice with stir-fried chicken and veg; sandwiches; hearty loaded soup with toast or noodles)

DON’T: Try a new food. Try to avoid very high-fibre or high-fat foods (e.g. large amounts of beans, raw salads or fried foods) because you’ll most likely end up bloated, gassy and feeling lethargic.

Helpful Snacks on Performance Day

Crumpets with butter and jam

Crumpets

with spread; e.g. peanut butter and jam, or honey

Pork steam buns sit in a bamboo steamer

Steamed Buns

e.g. pork buns, or red bean buns

A selection of sushi: Nigiri, maki rolls with tuna, salmon, shrimp, crab and avocado.

Sushi Rolls

Red apples

Fruits

such as banana, apple, pears and grapes

A mango lassi in a take away container with a straw sits on a bench.

Fruit juices, smoothies & lassi’s

Yogurt with berries and mint on top

Yogurt

two muesli bars

Muesli Bars

A grilled cheese sandwich

Simple sandwiches

e.g. ham and cheese, vegemite or hummus

What are some myths about diet we can bust?

Have you come across any of these myths before?  Click on a statement to learn about why it is not true.

The reason why many diets end up with a rebound weight gain is because of the proper functioning of the body – If the body is malnourished, it will reduce metabolism and the functions of its organs and systems, so when you finally eat adequately it will renourish the weight it had lost (this is also known is weight cycling). Not-dieting is the best way to keep your most optimally performing self.

Carbohydrates are essential fuel for the body, just like fats and proteins. In fact, injury rates go us as carbohydrate intake goes down for dancers and aesthetic athletes.

Cell repair, growth, and development happens during your sleep. If you don’t have enough fuel in your body by eating an adequate meal post-performance or training in the evening, your body won’t be able to recover efficiently overnight. Try and go for easily digested foods. Very high-fibre or high-fat foods can take much longer time to digest hence negatively impact your quality of sleep.

There is no evidence to support that weight loss reduces joint injuries in dancers. In fact, the evidence shows that weight loss leads to greater overall injuries in dancers, and that developing appropriate muscles (or muscle groups) around the joint areas are the most helpful injury-prevention and management.

Fasted exercise has not been shown to translate to body fat changes in the long term. When you exercise in a fasted state, your body may burn a higher percentage of fat. But because your body is low in fuel, you can only exercise at a lower intensity. This means that your performance quality does not necessarily improve. There is much better evidence showing that exercising in an adequately fuelled state optimises muscle gains, endurance, and performance quality.

Body image as a performer

How do we navigate the idea of how we look isn’t who we are?

How we look is still part of who we are, but our aesthetic is not what defines our worth or value.

Understanding this difference is important in navigating body image in performing arts. Showing up as your best self for your performance is important, and it’s part of the artist’s responsibility. Your best-self is created when you truly and holistically nourish yourself.

My experience (both personally and clinically/professionally) has been in ballet, where the idealised body is one that is thin, white, and young, with long limbs, small head, and a high arch. Although the culture differs between different performing art forms, the two main universal judgement about bodies are size/weight and race/colour.

Body image is not just about how you look and what you think of how you look; it’s a complex mix of the experiences you have had in the body that you own. That includes racism, colourism, classism, sexism, sizeism, trauma… the list goes on.

Although it has slightly improved over years, the mainstream media and performing arts is still predominantly White and is not yet representative of the genuine diversity of different human bodies. This amplifies the feeling of exclusion for performers that do not ‘look’ like one. For performers of Colour, the systemic oppression historically experienced as marginalised individuals feed into the way they perceive their body, their worth, and place in the society including the performing arts community.

Dieting is often a way to feel included in the mainstream culture which idealises thin, white, young bodies. I have heard countless times a dancer of Colour say, “I can’t change the colour of my skin, the length of my limbs, or the size of my head, so I thought weight is the one thing I can control to fit in”.

How do we have a good relationship with body image when we are judged on our appearance?

It’s extremely hard when the industry promotes putting one’s worth solely on the performer’s appearance. When you are judged about your body, that judgement is a reflection of that person’s internalised bias and stigma; the judgement is NOT a reflection of your worth or value. You deserve to own your appearance, size, and shape, regardless of what others say.

The key to improving your body image is to learn to respect instead of forcing love (if love comes as a by-product, then that’s a bonus!)

Here are some points to help you build respect with your body:

Nourish your body with a regular and abundant supply of foods

Understand that your body is always doing its best to protect you

Dress for the body that you have now right in this moment, instead of choosing clothes ‘for when I lose weight’.

Curate your social media so that you can see diverse bodies. Here are some suggested Instagram accounts to get you started:

This resource was released in conjunction with a live webinar from Eating Disorders Victoria.

If you would like to learn more about eating disorders and the common misconceptions that surround them, the recording is available to watch here

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