Nutrition Questions for Young Dancers: Answered by Eating Disorder Professionals
Mary Lorraine's Dance Center collected questions regarding nutrition and eating from dancers and parents. MLDC then turned in these questions to experts in the field. Nutrition can be a hard subject to discuss and students and parents often get inaccurate information through media or friends. That's why we wanted to provide you with factual information from expert health professionals. Here are the answers from eating disorder professionals.
Q: Do you have any advice to help students who compare their physical size to others? Comparing themselves to their friends their age and to “stars” on social media?
"This is so tempting to do, but truthfully it is impossible to tell if someone is healthy simply by looking
at their weight, shape, or BMI. Health is measured on the inside in the form of vital signs, lab
values, mental health, and more. Many people in larger bodies are completely healthy and thriving,
and many in smaller bodies are not. This is what makes comparisons to peers, social media
influencers, models, etc. so dangerous. Often diets, exercises, or products are recommended to
“fix” our bodies, but these are not one-size-fits-all. In addition, BMI is not a reliable way to measure
health, especially in athletes who may be muscular."
Focus instead on getting 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day and listening to the body’s hunger and fullness cues to guide portion sizes. All foods (yes, ALL) can fit into a well-rounded diet that is balanced with physical activity at a level that is enjoyable and well-tolerated by the body.
Q: Should I give my child dinner before dance or after dance? I don’t want them to be too full, but they don’t finish until late and I’ve heard it’s bad to eat before bed. If I just give them snacks before what is the best for sustained energy?
"It's important to consider timing and what is doable for your family. There is not one “right” way to handle this scenario, so I will give a few examples:
Option 1: Serve a nutritionally complete dinner approximately 1 hour before physical activity to
allow food to be mostly digested before practice, decreasing stomach pain and cramping. Avoid
serving a very large or very high-fat meal close to practice as this tends to keep us full longer.
Each child should listen to their body and increase this time if needed. Then, after practice, offer
a balanced snack. The most balanced snack contains all macronutrients in the form of a grain,
protein, and fat source. It may at times include a fruit, vegetable, or dairy. While it’s not essential
to have all macronutrients at snacks, more macronutrient balance = more stable energy level that lasts longer.
Option 2: 30-60 minutes before class, offer a balanced snack (as above) that will sustain the
child. This will help to provide energy to get through practice. Make sure to offer dinner no more
than 3-4 hours after the snack. It is a good idea to make sure the child fuels before and after
practice, regardless of timing."
Q: My child goes to the Dollar Tree to get their own snacks between classes. How do I encourage her to choose something healthy without making her worried about their size?
"Depending on the child’s age, it may be appropriate for them to make food choices such as this.
However, if you feel these snacks are replacing too many nutrient-dense foods (fruits, veggies,
whole grains, proteins, etc.) or they are rarely hungry for meals, then balance may need to be
discussed with the child. Often, looking at a MyPlate with a child can be a good way to talk about balancing the food groups. In addition, discussing health in ways that have nothing to do with weight may help them build or maintain a healthy relationship with food and prevent disordered eating. Some examples of non-weight health indicators are vital signs, lab values, presence of regular menstruation (in girls who have gotten their period), mental health, physical activity level,
Pro tip: A snack doesn’t always have to have all macronutrients or be stereotypically “healthy.”
Sometimes we crave a cupcake as a snack because it sounds good and brings us enjoyment,
and that’s perfectly okay! This is still a source of energy and allowing kids to have these encourages them to view food as fuel without labeling it “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
Q: At what age should you start talking to your kids about making healthy eating habits and portion control without causing them to be worried about their weight?
"Even though it is engrained into our society, try to focus less on using terms such as “portion
control", “healthy eating,” and similar terms as these set rigid expectations around eating. Eating
and health are unique to each person. An approach that most people can appreciate, and most
kids can even understand is the concept of “moderation and variety.” This means that all foods are
allowed, and no foods are off limits. In fact, treats can be useful to our bodies in providing quick
energy and satisfaction, if we are eating many other types of food. The more variety we eat, the
better, as this provides more nutrients. As far as how much to eat, most people’s bodies have the
ability to tell them when they’ve had enough food or are still hungry, so encouraging your child to
listen to these cues without judgement can be helpful."
Try to focus less on using terms such as “portion control, “healthy eating,” and similar terms as these set rigid expectations around eating. Eating and health are unique to each person.
Q: Is it okay for teens to follow certain diet plans?
"It is not recommended for children, including teens, to follow restrictive diet plans as this
contributes to disordered eating and can place a growing child at risk for malnutrition. Even diet
plans that don’t restrict calories or food groups can create a mindset of needing to achieve perfect
nutrition, but the reality is that our bodies can adapt to different nutritional conditions and most of
the time carefully calculated or planned meals aren’t necessary. See “variety and moderation” in
the section above.
Q: I have a 15 minute break during five hours of dancing. What should I eat that is quick and filling but won’t make me feel sick when I have to dance?
"In this case, preparing ahead of time will be necessary. First, try to eat a meal or substantial snack
about 1-2 hours before long periods of dance. This should include carbohydrates, proteins, fats and
should focus on “condensing” foods to avoid feeling overly full. During break time, try to eat a
moderate portion of a carbohydrate-based snack, such as a few handfuls of snack food, a nutrition
bar, or 1⁄2 PB & J sandwich. It is great if this snack contains some protein but avoid eating large
amounts of fat during this break as this may contribute to stomach pain and indigestion. And finally,
remember to refuel at the next meal or snack time following exercise."
Our dance studio wants all of our dancers to be healthy from the inside out. We hope that these answers from Health Professionals answer a few of your questions and perhaps debunk a few myths you might have heard about "healthy" eating. MLDC is always here to help develop young, healthy, and happy children.