Food is a powerful tool that does more than just fuel your body—what you eat and when can mean the difference between feeling focused and happy, or tired and depressed. Your nutrition choices can even affect how you feel pain. Here’s a simple guide to eating in a way that will keep your brain chemically balanced—and your body and mind ready to take the stage.
Why You Need It: When there is enough serotonin—the key feel-good neurochemical—in the brain, you’ll tend to feel happy and satisfied, with a solid sense of wellbeing. When serotonin levels are too low, you’re likely to be emotional, lethargic and not in the mood to dance. Drugs like Prozac, which artificially boost serotonin levels, are sometimes prescribed to treat depression.
Made From: Carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes, bread, rice, cereals, fruits and, to a lesser extent, vegetables, and simple sugars found in sweets like cookies, chocolate, cake and other refined carbohydrates. The amino acid tryptophan, found in protein (meat, chicken, fish, dairy, legumes and eggs), enhances serotonin levels.
What to Do:
- Serotonin levels are lowest in the morning, so always eat breakfast within an hour of waking up.
- Consume calories every four hours at least, even if it’s just a handful of nuts or raisins, to prevent blood sugar from falling.
- Don’t rely on sugary foods to raise serotonin levels. Unless you eat carbs and protein together consistently all day long, you’ll be on a roller coaster of energy highs and lows.
Why You Need Them: Endorphins help you get through workouts by masking joint pain and muscle burn. When endorphin levels are low, you’ll experience more stress, fatigue and a depressed mood—you may even feel pain more acutely. When endorphin levels are high, feelings of pain or discomfort will be reduced, moods will be stable, and you may feel a sense of euphoria.
Made From: Fats and sugars. (Opt for healthy sources, like peanuts and pears, over cake and candy.) Endorphin levels are also elevated after an hour or so of continuous aerobic exercise.
What to Do:
- Don’t eliminate fats from your diet, especially those found in avocado, fish, nuts, olive and canola oils and sesame tahini. (See “Fat Facts” in DS March 2006 for more on good fats.)
- With each meal and snack, eat complex carbohydrates like whole grains, wholegrain cereals, breads, crackers, fruits and veggies.
- Carry a bag of granola with you for quick snacks.
Why You Need It: Dopamine is a feel good neurochemical that keeps you energized, alert and able to concentrate. Too little dopamine can make you drowsy and prevent you from feeling full.
Made From: Protein.
What to Do:
- To keep dopamine levels from falling—along with all your oomph—consume your protein quota throughout the day, instead of in one sitting.
- Keep a bag of kidney beans, jerky or peanuts in your school and dance bags for munching.
NOREPINEPHRINE AND NEUROPEPTIDE Y
These two brain chemicals also play an integral part in how you feel, but unlike the feel-good chemicals discussed earlier, when you have too much norepinephrine and neuropeptide Y, you’ll tend to crave carbs and have trouble feeling full, leading you to overeat. Both chemicals tend to be high when serotonin levels are low and when blood sugar plummets. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that rises when you’re anxious, such as before opening night or a big audition. Though it will give you energy to dance, it will make you burn more calories, too. (Be sure to practice stress reduction, such as yoga or massage, to keep norepinephrine at bay.) High neuropeptide Y levels, on the other hand, lead to decreased energy expenditure, meaning that you may burn fewer calories throughout the day, possibly because you feel sluggish and don’t move around as much. The best way to keep these neurochemicals in balance is to eat consistently all day long from each food group.
BALANCING THE SCALES
Nine Ways to Maintain Chemical Equilibrium
1. Eat five small meals each day instead of three large ones.
2. Always eat breakfast.
3. At each meal or snack, include wholesome complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, yams, potatoes, pasta, whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits and veggies.
4. Always eat some protein with your carbohydrates. Protein slows the digestion of carbs and fats, so blood sugar will rise evenly, instead of spiking and crashing. Lean red meat, poultry, low-fat dairy, eggs or egg whites, nuts, beans and soy are good choices.
5. Rather than eliminate all fats, reduce only the unhealthy kinds—animal fats, butter, margarine, mayonnaise and shortening.
6. Don’t skimp on the good fats found in fish, nuts, avocado, olive and canola oils and sesame tahini.
7. Consume enough calories. For most active female dancers, this is 2,300–2,400 per day. For most active male dancers, this is 2,600–3,000 per day.
8. Eat the foods you love. It’s perfectly acceptable to indulge in tasty treats every now and then. If you deprive yourself of your favorites, cravings for them will make you more likely to, for instance, eat a whole chocolate cake instead of one slice.
9. Enjoy mealtimes. Taking the time to sit down and savor a 10-minute snack is better than wolfing down food as you run for the bus. It takes 20-30 minutes for the brain to receive the signal that the stomach is full. If you eat quickly and still feel empty and unsatisfied, you’re likely to eat without realizing how full you are, only to feel stuffed later.
DID YOU KNOW?
Associating food with a good mood begins during infancy. When a baby is hungry, blood sugar falls, causing an uncomfortable emotional state. The child will scream and cry until fed, then feel better. This means that from a very early age, your body was trained to associate stress reduction with eating.
Marie Elena Scioscia, a former dancer, currently heads nutrition services at the Manhattan Plaza Health Club and has a private practice in NYC.