“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.
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.
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