Food Fight


“I get embarrassed when I order a larger meal than my friends when we’re out together,” says 16-year-old dancer Harmony*, who studies ballet, pointe, tap, contemporary and other styles. “When I’m eating something—even something healthy—and offer some to my dance friends, and they say, ‘No thanks, I’m watching what I eat,’ I immediately feel guilty.” And the feeling isn’t just spurred by other people: “I’m a perfectionist,” Harmony says, “and I’ve always had bad self-esteem when it comes to my body.”

Harmony’s not alone. Many dancers have a love/hate relationship with food—the need for energy is at war with the desire to be thin. While food guilt itself isn’t an eating disorder, Nadine Kaslow, a former professional ballet dancer who is now the resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, notes that it can be a form of disordered eating: “The extent to which food guilt negatively impacts your life determines how far along the spectrum you are,” she says. “If food makes you feel bad about yourself, distracts you from schoolwork, distracts you in dance class or impacts social relationships, that’s problematic.”

Fighting food guilt takes both an attitude adjustment and lifestyle changes. Try these tips to alleviate guilt in the short term, and get on your way to beating it completely.

Change Your Attitude 

The biggest key to overcoming food guilt is realizing that food is not your enemy. It’s the fuel that keeps you dancing, strengthens your muscles and gives you stamina. Dancers need to develop good habits, says Emily Harrison, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and former professional ballet dancer who now runs Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Nutrition. “You have to give yourself permission to eat when your body is hungry,” she says. “Hunger is telling you something. Honor your body—your instrument—by listening to it.”

Longtime Mark Morris Dance Group member June Omura had a complicated relationship with food starting in her teen years. “When I was happy and busy, [food guilt] was never a problem,” she says. However, when she was auditioning and constantly feeling like her body type—5' 2" and “not a wraith”—wasn’t what people were looking for, she entered a cycle of restricting her food intake, secretly snacking on treats and then feeling guilty about it. Only once she joined MMDG did Omura find a balance, in part because she discovered that “as a professional dancer, the feeling of being hungry and trying to dance was torture. I felt panicked that I wouldn’t have the energy to do what I needed to do! I learned from experience that you can’t deprive your body and still function.”

To break the guilt cycle, Omura recommends that dancers learn about nutrition—in particular how carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, calcium and fats benefit your dancing body. Omura researched the effects of good nutrition on her own and you can do the same. Or ask your studio director to bring in a nutritionist to discuss healthy food choices with your class.

Start Snacking 

It may seem counterintuitive to fight food guilt by eating more often, but according to Harrison, “a lot of dancers go too long without eating—three to six hours at a stretch. Then, because they’re starving when they get home, they overeat. That’s where the guilt sets in: ‘I ate so much. I feel so bloated. I shouldn’t have done that.’ ”

Pack fresh fruit and veggies, trail mix or granola bars to eat between meals. “If you have that resource in your bag, you’re ready to eat without any guilt,” says Taylor Paige, a senior ballet major at University of the Arts in Philadelphia who often feels ashamed when she gives in to cravings and overindulges in unhealthy foods. She recommends choosing snacks that will give you energy to get through your day.

If you’re not sure if you’re eating for emotional rather than physical reasons, Harrison suggests keeping a journal. Write down when you get hungry, rating your hunger level from 1 to 10, and note what you eat in response. Examine your journal after a few weeks to see what strategies were successful. Knowing what your body wants and needs can help you plan accordingly. As a rule of thumb, Harrison says dancers should eat every 2 to 3 hours.

Treat Yourself 

Kaslow points out that while you do have to maintain a certain fitness level to be a dancer, depriving yourself of foods you crave can lead you to become obsessed with them. “It’s OK to enjoy food. You just have to be smart about it,” she says. “For instance, if you want chocolate, fill yourself up with healthy food first, and then have a piece.”

Indulging mindfully sometimes means planning ahead. “If you know you’re going to a birthday party, stick to healthier foods during the week,” Harrison says. When you arrive at the event, Paige suggests “scoping out the situation and figuring out which one item you really want. Choose one slice of cake and savor it.” Omura, meanwhile, eats healthily during the day but treats herself to a small serving of ice cream each night. Find a strategy that works for you and treat yourself to a reward for your hard work.

Go Easy on Yourself 

Even when you’re making healthy food choices, the food guilt might not disappear. A fellow dancer might comment on your meal, or brag about how she hasn’t eaten since yesterday. Or you could be stressed about something unrelated to dance, but it may manifest itself as food guilt and poor body image.

Remember that, contrary to the popular saying, you are not what you eat. “Food is not a moral issue; it’s not something that’s right or wrong,” says Kaslow. “What you eat shouldn’t influence your self-esteem. Who you are as a person has to do with what you contribute to society, your integrity and your relationships—it’s not about a scale or a slice of pizza.”

*Name has been changed

Latest Posts

Meet the dancers of MDC3: Madi Smith, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Mather (left to right). Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

Meet MDC3: The "World of Dance" Winners Who Defied the Odds

In March 2020, the same day the "World of Dance" cast got word that production would be shutting down due to a global pandemic, MDC3 artists Madison (Madi) Smith, Diego Pasillas and Emma Mather stood shoulder to shoulder onstage, bracing to hear the final results of the competition. The champion title and $1 million prize money were within reach, decided entirely by the three celebrity judges sitting in front of them. As their competitor's scores dropped from the lips of Derek Hough, Jennifer Lopez and Ne-Yo at roughly 2 percentage points below their own, viewers watched realization dawn. MDC3's mouths dropped into gigantic Oh's before their hands slapped over their faces in disbelief. Sparklers shot up while confetti rained down, and the announcer shouted, "MDC3, you are the winner of 'World of Dance'!"

It was an impressive accomplishment for any group of dancers, let alone three teenagers who'd faced rejection from the show three times over. Despite their youth (Madi is 18, Diego is 17 and Emma is 16), this moment was hard earned through years of dedicated patience.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Mason Evans assisting at New York City Dance Alliance in Orlando, FL (Evolve Photo & Video, courtesy Mason Evans)

5 Dancers Share What It's Really Like to Return to Competitions Right Now

For the first time since the coronavirus hit the U.S., competitions and conventions are meeting in-person once again (brimming with safety precautions, of course), and dancers couldn't be more thrilled.

We asked five standout comp kids about their recent experiences attending competitions around the country—and how they're taking advantage of these long-lost opportunities.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Because the future of Black dance is happening right now (Braylon Browner photographed by Rhiannon Lee, courtesy Braylon Browner)

Celebrating Black Futures Month: 4 Up-and-Coming Black Dancers Making History Right Now

Throughout the month of February, many Americans celebrate Black History Month, a period of the year dedicated to honoring the contributions of Black figures to American culture and society.

The lesser-known Black Futures Month, which is also celebrated in February—and often in conjunction with BHM—looks to art and artists to envision an equitable future for Black Americans. At Dance Spirit, we're celebrating #BlackFuturesMonth by spotlighting four young Black dancers whose dance journeys are proving that the future of Black dance is bright.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search