Brain Power

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.

SEROTONIN

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.

ENDORPHINS

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.

DOPAMINE

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.

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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