StEPS: Nutrition for Dancers and Student Athletes

Nutrition and cooking with compression socks

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS.

Nutrition for Dancers and Student Athletes

Today we will be discussing nutrition for dancers and student athletes. We’re discussing why nutrition needs for dancers are different and nutrition tips with Dr. Nasira Burkholder Cooley, who is a registered dietitian and former classical ballet dancer. 

Our question today is “How can we Empower Students, Particularly our Young Dancers, to Make Healthy Food Choices?”

This is the day and age of helicopter parenting and over involvement by adults in children's lives, and unfortunately those practices don't empower kids as we push them out of the nest into the world. It's an exciting topic, it's a challenge, it's much harder than it sounds, and we know that this is going to help people not only with their student athletes but also with parents like me, who have young children at home four and eight years old. It's a struggle to put healthy things in their body to fuel their brain and their body correctly and stimulate them the right way, to make sure they're growing and strong so it's definitely one of the more challenging tasks we have in our everyday life. We want to make sure that we are preparing our young dancers if they choose a professional career or just in general to make choices that are good and serve their whole well-being. This is really about giving them more autonomy to make their own choices and the tools to make sure that those choices serve them well. Our guest for this article is Dr. Nasira Burkholder Cooley* . (Read more about her below)

Why did you choose nutrition and specifically why nutrition for dancers?

Dr Burkholder: My initial interest in nutrition was based on how I felt it could help me with my ballet career. At the time I originally was going to just pursue a dance career, but I decided to double major when I was at the University of Arizona, and nutrition seemed like a logical fit because I knew it was something that could help me learn more about fueling my body and hopefully promoting a longer healthier career so it fell into place well. I ended up finding I was very passionate about science in general and also nutrition science and biochemistry so as I progressed I found that, wow dancers really need guidance in this area and I understand dancers because I was a dancer, am a dancer and so now I've found a great niche serving the dance community and I couldn't be happier about it. It's a really wonderful balance for me. What makes nutrition different for dancers?

Why is nutrition different for people who have pursued a dance career or are studying dance?

Dr. Burkholder: Nutrition overall is very individualized, not one size fits all. It's so easy for us to buy into fad diets and anecdotal evidence because our friend tried it or this celebrity follows this diet and I think dancers are very susceptible to trying some of these based on what their role models are doing. We have to realize that as individuals, our nutrition needs vary based on body, size, age, gender, physical activity level, genetics, the environment, you add this additional layer of intense consistent rigorous physical activity that dancers are engaging in and their needs are going to vary dramatically. So generally I would say dancers have higher energy needs than the general population and their training varies day to day, week to week, it tends to be fairly intense and for dancers there really isn't an off season so it's really just this ongoing high energy demand. It's important for them to realize that at different ages, when dancers are experiencing periods of rapid growth, their energy needs might be higher, then you throw puberty into the mix…well that's another phase where energy demands might be a little bit higher! We're experiencing body changes, which further complicate the issue, so it's critical that dancers recognize that and that they embrace it and try to fuel themselves appropriately rather than trying to follow the latest fad or create some restrictive diet because they think that's what they need. They definitely need to try to understand what their true needs are.

Do you think that dancers are often consumed with cutting calories, instead of really the opposite?

Dr. Burkholder: Studies show that the majority of dancers under-eat and in regards to calorie intake, that is really sabotaging their progress especially growing dancers, where their primary goals should be gaining strength improving their skill set not trying to cut calories.

When you look at the mental capacity that the kids have too, not only juggling a full dance schedule, and I'm talking teenagers now but a lot of times you know you're dealing with high schoolers who have the dreaded AP schedule, they're just up till two in the morning doing homework that's depleting as well right?

Dr. Burkholder: Absolutely the brain requires a lot of energy and studying can really use up a lot of calories, so it's not the same as physical activity, but dance requires a lot of concentration and memory so that combined with the demands of school studying, keeping up with the social agenda, trying to have some fun, maybe pursuing other activities as well, energy demands can be quite high. Something will be compromised if you're not fueling your body correctly, that might be that you're performing poorly in your dance classes or you're in a bad mood all the time, because you don't feel well, or you can't study well, your memory is poor and your know your body can only take so much abuse and that's what it is, when you're restricting its energy.

Is there a specific need that we have as dancers because we have this need to remain lean and remain agile so that we can keep our flexibility and move quicker and do sharper movements and things like that but to have the need to build muscle for strength and power, like is there a specific balance that we have to keep there as dancers in our nutrition that helps us maintain both?

Dr. Burkholder: I would say there is a happy medium. There's a fine balance that dancers wish to achieve, that dancers need to be strong, but there is this aesthetic appeal and a functionality component about having a lean yet strong body, so finding that for each individual though is unique and there certainly are ways that it can be accomplished. It takes time and oftentimes we don't achieve that perfect balance until we're at the peak of our career, in adulthood and it takes time to achieve that, and to figure out how you should be fueling yourself properly, and young dancers often expect themselves oh I'm supposed to have my ideal strong lean body at the age of 13 or 14 or 15. And that's just not realistic. You're going to go through phases of change and experiencing body changes that you don't have a lot of control over and to develop that muscle density it takes time and years and years of training. It's certainly something that can be accomplished if done helpfully, but I'm sad to say I think a lot of dancers are constantly striving for that idea and they end up very frustrated because they're comparing their best self to someone else's best self. We don't all look the same and there are different body types and you may be the healthiest version of yourself but you might not ever be as thin as some celebrity dancers. There's that aspect too, I think of accepting working with what you have to try to achieve the best version of yourself in a healthy way and I help dancers accomplish that but again it's very individualized it's not oh here's the recipe for your perfect body and perfect energy level and ideal strength it's will vary person to person and might take some experimenting and again maturity.

How hard is it to change and adjust unhealthy nutritional habits once you become an adult ?

Dr. Burkholder: I think that pre-teen and teenagers are very impressionable. In some cases our eating habits develop much earlier than that, our pubertal years tend to be where we begin to adopt our adult habits. We have a new found sense of independence, in trying to figure out who we are and what we want. As parents and as dance instructors, we have an important role in promoting the development of healthy habits, and unfortunately the pressures that are experienced by young dancers, can often lead them to assume or normalize unhealthy eating behaviors. Before you know it, a few years of that mentality can lead to a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits.

That on the go lifestyle is really hard because that's what so many of us practice now, just every day of the week, less often we're sitting down to meals. We're running from place to place, these kids are going from place to place often not sitting down until you know nine ten o'clock at night and then they've got piles of homework to do, as they become teenagers so it becomes a lot harder to have quality nutrition and quality meals. Empowering them, when they're on the go, there are choices that are still good choices and options that they have. What age is appropriate to start having children make their own food choices?

Dr. Burkholder: It's a challenge, I have a one-year-old and I try my best to give her a bit of autonomy in choosing from healthy options. As the parent we have to offer acceptable choices because our children are only going to choose from what we offer so if you make unhealthy choices available they taste better anybody is going to pick Cheetos over carrot sticks because they tastes better right but if we don't offer the Cheetos well they're not going to know any better so if you are offering acceptable choices then I think it's perfectly fine to let your children be part of their food selection at a very young age. and to be honest I You could always offer one or two fruit options for a snack or here's sliced cucumber versus some slivered carrots which one would you like? Putting a few options on their tray or on their plate so that they can decide, we have to realize there is a balance between us dictating here's your meal and also realizing that food preferences are real and it's okay for them to have food preferences, but within reason. If it's a free-for-all then they're going to just stick with the “kid diet”.

What do you do, when you have those issues when introducing two healthier options, is it still an issue for that child?

Dr. Burkholder: You know picky eaters are common, however picky eating is not a genetic trait. Picky eating is a developed practice and trying to work with them to find alternatives not forcing the same oddly textured food on the child all the time. Sometimes it takes 10 to 12 exposures to a new food before a child will accept it, so that takes some persistence and as a parent I'm finding just how difficult that really can be, because you think “okay three times I've wasted…three plates of sweet potatoes, she doesn't like it” but eventually they do just come to accept it, so trying that but then realizing “okay it's been a dozen times she still doesn't like sweet potatoes, okay we'll move on maybe later”. Figuring out how to understand your child and just do your best to try, be persistent, because there is this era of their life, this is an opportunity where you have control over what the child is eating and as soon as they leave the nest or really once they enter Junior High even when they're at school, (I mean all it takes is them heading off to school they're going to start trading food eating school lunch hitting up the vending machine) use this time to really try to develop their taste buds in a way that doesn't make them desensitized to salty & sweet flavors because that is really what happens over time. If they're exposed early on to these kinds of overwhelmingly flavorful foods that's what they'll always expect so then you know the carrot sticks or apple slices will no longer be appealing, right?

Does building these skills especially earlier on, and this confidence almost ,in their choices, translate as they get older to other areas of their life ?

Dr. Burnkholder: I say absolutely and I think prior learning to prioritize health is critical and it's something that we need as parents, need to be examples of. If they see us making it a priority to take the time to prepare and consume a healthy meal or take the time to exercise they will want to do the same as they grow up.

One of the big themes that's reoccurring that we have heard is, “no food is bad there's no such thing as bad food” villainizing certain foods or certain types of food. When you have a child that loves the “Kid Diet” the nuggets, the fries, the Cheetos…they say “oh that's just kid food. Kids love that stuff, when you have it and they choose it. How do you redirect them without villainizing food, how do you not say nuggets are bad or fried food is bad, how do you redirect in a positive way that doesn't villainize certain food groups?

Dr Burkholder: I think the the concern is that, one being that there may be a tendency for rebellion if they start to think “okay this is a no, this is off limits, so as soon as I'm out of mom's sight I'm gonna go for the candy, I'm gonna go for the the chicken nuggets”. It's about balance, we need to do a good job of trying not to glorify these food differences or making a big deal about it because the more that we do that the more that they're going to be curious and want to try it. It's something too I see even with adult clients, where I hear about some of their histories and it kind of makes sense why they might feel like they were so deprived. So now they need to try everything. That's not to say “oh we need to give our kids all the treats now make sure they try everything” because that's not a good approach either. Being reasonable, thinking about being a good example. What is a healthy practice, well it's probably okay once a week to have a real dessert in proportion or you know maybe once every couple weeks your family goes out and you order something fun or you get pizza. Making those occasions special occasions, trying to shift the focus away from the actual food in those instances to the experience. For example: we're going out as a family, we're going out for a drive, oh we're gonna stop for ice cream. Without highlighting or emphasizing this sugary sweet ice cream. I'm someone too that loves to bake and cook so for me going through the trouble of trying to recreate and redesign traditional recipes to make them healthier is fun too. You can still incorporate treats and yummy tasting food that are still nutritious into your kids diet, and that's something that isn't in the cards for everybody, if you don't enjoy baking or don't have time to bake, but it's something that if it's just a once a week maybe a special treat, maybe making something together at home that doesn't have added sugar, using whole grains using other healthy ingredients but that still tastes yummy, would become sort of a special treat for your kid.

One of the things that we have noticed in studios, is that we tend to reward things that are unhealthy, “you guys did a great job so I bought cupcakes or oh here I brought cookies!” I feel like it builds that sense of “when we do good things we get these or I'm gonna have a pizza party, if you win first overall in every competition we're gonna have a pizza party”… right? If we could make a change to try to change our reward system, so it is not based on food at all, maybe the reward system isn't food, or if it is food maybe it's “Hey we need to vote and choose an option that's sweet and an option that's more healthy as your reward” like being able to offer those things versus just giving them the cupcake option across the board. Might that be a better way to approach it? How do we branch away from food being used as a reward?

Dr. Burkholder: It's important to veer away from using food as a reward, but it is such an easy option, and kids do tend to get excited about food treats! If there was sort of a new norm that we could establish or even if the food reward was something healthy. Focusing on the reward being an experience or a trip or a game that would be preferred.

We want to talk about some actual things that dance teachers (because sometimes we are the parents away from home, we are the adult eyes when they are not around their parents) can do that are age-appropriate to empower children at every age level. What developmentally appropriate things can we do or or say as parents to children, to help them make the choices that are the what we believe are the right choices?

Two to five-year-olds; What's a good way to encourage, and allow two to five year olds to make good decisions?

Dr. Burnkholder: I think at that stage it's really about continuing to only offer healthy choices, you still have them in this confined space where they're not out on their own and able to to choose from a vending machine or a lunch menu. Offering healthy choices, giving them one or two choices per meal or snack. That allows them to feel like they're winning, they're getting to make a choice. Children have so little control at that age, so to be able to pick their snack is probably enough of a thrill.

Six to ten-year-olds; we're getting into the Upper Elementary age. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

Dr. Burkholder: At that stage, you're still in control of what they're being served at their meals however they're going to start practicing swapping foods with their friends, or when they're starting to go out on their own once in a while to a friend's house. So of course the idea is; you want them to make healthy choices in those situations as well, keeping it interesting to get kids at that age involved in food prep, so it's something they can become excited about even if that's just you know letting them shred lettuce for a salad or choose what spices you're gonna put on chicken letting them feel like they are involved can make give them an interest in food and you know you don't know where that might lead them or how that may help them but I imagine it would be very helpful and just offer some some interest and letting them start to understand the benefits and the thrill of healthy eating.

Ten to thirteen year olds; I call these kids the “pod people” where did my happy loving little 10 year old go.. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

Dr. Burkholder: So now we start introducing issues like body image and peer pressure and puberty. I think at this stage the most important thing is to just help children try to maintain a healthy perspective and maintain confidence because they're going to be facing so much adversity and conflict and emotional changes and mood swings. Try to at least keep food consistent and hopefully something that remains to be a healthy experience for them, so again making sure that at the home there are always healthy choices available and continued involvement in food prep, giving them even a little more autonomy, allowing them to pack their lunch (which if they're making selections from your home assuming that those options are healthy then that shouldn't be an issue and then if they pack their own lunch). They're probably less likely to feel like “oh I have a sack lunch, I would rather buy you know junk food at the cafeteria”.

This is also the age where they get very busy, especially when we're talking about competitive dancers. It's on us because we're driving the car, we're taking them from place to place, we're in charge of that. A lot of times when we're on the go, we forget to pack something for them to eat in between school and dance, or school and whatever activity they're doing. It's easier to drive through somewhere, really taking the time to pack that food, I would think would be huge hugely important in terms of their health.

Dr. Burkholder: I would say two tips for parents at this age is ONE; as much as possible trying to encourage eating together as a family when you can and I realize it's difficult to achieve that when you have children going in different directions, a spouse getting home late, even if it's just a couple of you, even if it's just you and one of your kids sitting down having a meal. Preferably having the same types of food so they feel like okay you know we're both eating this healthy meal. That's one thing, eating together is a great practice to be in. SECOND; planning ahead, and parents that's on us. We set aside a couple extra hours on the weekend to do some meal prep or pre-packaged snacks or get some of the bulk prep out of the way, then it does make the rest of the week a lot easier and it makes it easy for you to grab one of your pre-made homemade trail mix packets. Allow your child to have a healthy snack before their dance class, planning ahead it's huge.

Thirteen and up group; this is when they start getting some allowance, they can actually go buy their own foods. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

Dr. Burkholder: You can still control what's brought into your home, so continue to make those healthy choices for your family but honestly at this point it's almost too late to start pushing in their face, oh you don't eat that. This is where the rebellion can occur, so making a big deal about it is possibly one of the worst things we can do as parents. It's better to just make available what is healthy and if they choose to dabble with some of these other food items, I think discouraging it, don't enable it. You know if you're finding that their allowance is all getting spent on these super sugary drinks, then that's something that you could possibly pull the plug on that, so keep that in mind. It's it is normal at that age to explore a little bit more with new food choices.

What about having conversations about what they're eating around the 10-13 age range, and making them self-conscious in a way that they start developing body image issues, that maybe that wasn't the intention with our conversation but that's the result. Should we be having these conversations about why we need to put healthy foods in our body, with those kids at that age?

Dr. Burkholder: If we aren't having the conversations with our kids nobody will. Unfortunately nutrition just isn't emphasized enough in the school system so children need to become educated and that is empowering. Knowledge is power, and if we frame it in a way that isn't about oh if you eat this way you're gonna become overweight if we frame it in a way that you realize if you eat this way there are certain diseases down the road that you might end up you know running into like diabetes or heart disease and the younger the better that we bring up these topics even if it's just in passing. Maybe there's a family member that has cardiovascular disease, you know you can tie it into the conversation that way and that way it's something that they're familiar with that they understand. Diet and health outcomes are related, and I can prevent these diseases that could be very detrimental to my future and it's hard for a teenager to accept that they're not thinking about diabetes, they're thinking about the next Instagram picture they're gonna take. They care more about how they look, but we also don't want that to be our emphasis because that's already on their mind. We can encourage them to have healthy habits for preventing injury and not feeling sluggish. I think pointing out that your energy levels are affected by the way that you eat and the health of your bones and joints. Reducing injury risk, promoting healing, these are all certain factors that athletes and dancers can resonate with.

How should parents and studio owners and educators handle the moments away, the moments that these these kids are not in our supervision, they're not under our roof, they're not within our eyesight, (you know we're talking about sleepovers, we're talking about competitions, we're talking about conventions, at school, a lot of these places don't have the healthiest food options) so what are some things that we can do to kind of mitigate the damage that can be done when they're not in our eyesight?

Dr. Burkholder: Like any choices that our kids will be making when they're not with us I think they're memories of conversations that they've had with you. Help them remember what they know, how those choices will impact them. I think as we've been discussing, first of all giving them autonomy at a young age to know how to make the right choices is important, educating them as they grow up learning to give them healthy choices, teaching them about food.

How to prepare food, how to buy food, involve your kids in those processes so that when they are taking that on, on their own they can do it in a way that is healthful. How do you find a good nutritionist in your local community, who actually knows dance? Are there resources or anything you should look for? What if you're looking for a nutritionist, what are some questions you should ask to see if they have any specific experience with dancers or know how to work with dancers specifically?

Dr. Burkholder: First and foremost, make sure that you find a registered dietitian nutritionist. That is the standard for people that really have a good education and experience in nutrition, make sure you look for someone with that credential, that's a registered dietitian and then I think you need to just learn about the registered dietitian as an individual. Are they a former dancer, do they actually work with dancers (because even sports dietitians don't necessarily understand the psyche of dancers). It's important that you do find out if the person you're interested in working with has a background in dance. My services are all remote as well, so I can work with anybody throughout the world via a virtual consultation. I have a blog it's and we have some resources updated monthly with recipes and nutrition advice, injury prevention advice, and then you can contact me via email at to set up an individual consultation, I also do group education for dancers both in person and virtually depending on your area.

Something that we want you to focus on between now and next week when we come back with another topic is, What is one action one thing that you want our listeners to take between now and next week to progress in this area?

Dr. Burkholder: I think committing yourselves, whatever stage you're at, to spend a little extra time in the week to purchase or prepare some healthy snacks for your busy week. Even if it's just an extra 30 minutes to an hour because anybody could benefit from that, parent, dancer, young dancer, if you're the parent maybe including your child in that experience because again if you start to build that in, to your week you find that you are prepared and then you're not in a scramble and you're not sort of prone to making poor nutrition choices. So commit to an extra hour this week to set yourself up for a healthy week of nutrition. I have one other challenge for everyone and that is to avoid getting your nutrition and health advice from unreliable sources like friends and Instagram. Stop doing that, it is self-sabotage and it's confusing and it's frustrating and it will only lead to poor choices and adverse health outcomes in many cases. There's a handout that I've shared that has some general tips on nutrition for dancers, some ideas for meal prep, lists of healthy snacks with some information, also about good resources for recipes and nutrition and then some information about my background and my contact information so that's a handout focusing on healthy snacking for dancers !

If there's anything that you want to see or hear about please message us and we will make sure we get that scheduled. We're always working on scheduling the future episodes.

*Dr. Nasira Burkholder Cooley is a registered dietitian Fitness expert and nutrition educator. She was drawn to public health and nutrition as a result of her diverse background in Science Fine Arts and Fitness. She's currently an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University, a private practice registered dietitian, and post-doctoral researcher, she also serves as a nutrition educator for Chapman University Department of dance and the ABT Gillespie school at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, she is a former classical ballet dancer and trained with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the University of Arizona School of Dance and attended summer intensives at the National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theater. She graduated summa laude from the University of Arizona with a BS in nutrition and a BFA and Dance. Nasira continued her studies in the pursuit of a career as a nutrition professional and obtained a master's in public health from UCLA and a doctorate in nutritional Sciences from Loma Linda University, she's been an NASM certified personal trainer since 2008 and is a certified yoga instructor. Dr Burkholder Cooley you obviously have so much experience to offer.





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