What Dancers Need To Know About How Diet Affects Mood

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As a dancer, your world has been turned upside down with this pandemic. Schedules have been disrupted. Stress is high. If you find that your sleep patterns have shifted as well as your food choices, you may find that you aren’t feeling in tip-top shape. While no one and especially dancers can ever have a “perfect” diet, with a little understanding and planning, you can use your nutrition to keep your spirits up and stay in a positive frame of mind.

There has actually been quite a bit of research connecting diet and brain health and mood. Generally, we know that diets high in animal fats (like lots of red meat, skin on chicken, full-fat dairy) and sugar (sugary cereals, white flour breads, white rice, candy, doughnuts, cookies, etc.) have been linked to depression. Erratic eating schedules, imbalanced choices, and low-calorie intake also ruin moods. Could it be that changing our diets can make us feel better mentally and emotionally? Of course.

Here is what you need to know about brain chemistry. The neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that affect our mood and energy are made from the foods we eat. The first and most important one for dancers to be aware of is the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin gives us an incredible sense of well being. It also helps us regulate our sleep and keeps us calm. How do we keep up our serotonin levels? You may have guessed it: we need to include carbohydrates in our diets every time we eat and every day! Carbohydrates like whole grains, whole grain cereals, whole fruits, and veggies help us produce serotonin most easily. Serotonin is also low in the morning, so skipping breakfast or fasting is probably not a good idea if you want to feel well. Another take-home message is that erratic eating schedules will produce low blood sugar. When our blood sugar drops our serotonin levels drop, which can make us feel sad and sensitive. Do your best to keep a regular eating and sleeping schedule and you will be well on your way to balancing your brain and body!

But serotonin is not the only brain chemical that helps the dancer. You also need the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine increases energy, focus, concentration, and alertness, all traits dancers need in abundance. So if you’re sleepy and lethargic after a big bowl of pasta, it may be that you lacked the food component that will produce dopamine. That’s protein. Add some chicken or fish or beans to that pasta and watch yourself wake up! The combination of carbohydrates and protein is the dancer’s best defense against losing energy and feeling blue. You’ll get protein from red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans, and tofu. Mix it up and choose all kinds of protein to rev up your dancing engine. You also need protein to repair muscle, make hormones, and make red and white blood cells. To have a functioning immune system you need protein.

The third brain chemical that will help your dance life is called endorphins. Have you ever experienced that wonderful feeling of elation and that all is well in the world when dancing fully in rehearsals or performance? There is nothing like that! Just know that by eating some good quality fat, like avocado, nuts, olive oil, and fish, you’ll help your brain produce endorphins. Another reason to always have a fat source each time you eat! You don’t need much but you do need fat. Don’t be satisfied with a dry salad with vinegar on it. That will leave you hungry, unsatisfied, and not balanced. Add some olive or sesame oil to your salad and you’ll improve your energy, absorb nutrients better, and just feel good.

The bottom line for you is the following:

1. Get out most of the sugar in your diet. A treat every once in a while is totally fine and actually recommended. Just don’t have Oreos for breakfast!

2. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates! Choose whole foods over processed ones every time you eat.

3. Combine your carbs with lean proteins for mental and physical focus.

4. Always have a bit of fat at each meal.

5. Eat regularly.

6. Hydrate.

7. Get into a regular sleep pattern.

8. Practice mindfulness and stress reduction.

Do the best you can every day. With a little thought and planning, you can improve your mood, energy, and well being! 

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Marie Scioscia
Marie Scioscia, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian and certified fitness professional working in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. She’s the author of “Eat Right Dance Right,” the definitive nutritional guide for dancers. Her expertise in the dance world comes from being a former dancer, working with the Ailey School, New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham school, and other venues to promote wellness for dancers and all performing arts members.
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