August 2012 | A Better You | The Post-Dancing Diet

Take a smart approach to maintaining your weight

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Dancers, whether students or professionals, pay close attention to their bodies, and that doesn’t change when they stop dancing or taking class. Dance teachers don’t need to be super-thin anymore, but it’s hard not to keep asking, “What happened to that soloist’s body? Why am I gaining weight?”

If you’re like most of the teachers I know, you’re good about encouraging young dancers, especially girls, to adjust their perceptions and preconceived notions of the “right” dance body and accept and celebrate the body they have. But when it comes to yourself, I’ll bet you pay more attention to your mirror, in which every figure flaw is magnified, than to your own advice. Time and biology may make maintaining a good body weight trickier than anticipated.

Young dancers often expect a definitive answer when they ask what they are supposed to weigh, but that question is never easy to answer, especially for teens. Better guidelines exist for adults, whose bodies are not undergoing the rapid changes of adolescence. The basal metabolic index, or BMI, is the quick and easy way to determine whether anyone over age 18 is within the range of a basically healthy weight.

During routine check-ups, your physician can tell you where you fit in the BMI range, and it is easy enough to look up the parameters online. During the years when you’re dancing daily, you tend to be at the bottom of the normal BMI range. That changes when you’re injured, take time off to have a family, or move into the less active role of teaching. It’s common to ease up on a gym or Pilates routine because you’re tired of the grind. Plus, now you can kiss strict dieting goodbye—or can you?

This time of transition can be critical for a dancer once the fine-tuning of performance is no longer essential. Do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk, to another form of physicality. It may take some experimentation to find out whether you like being a gym rat, a Pilates maven, or a tennis nut, but do something. Make a pact with yourself to enjoy a month or so of taking it easy, and then get active again.

A lapse of more than a year in physical activity can undo years of training. (Think of the football player whose muscles turn to mush upon retirement.) Don’t be lulled into thinking it will never happen to you. The weight gained in the middle years does tend to hover around the abdomen. Keep your metabolism tuned up by participating in a physical activity such as bicycling or light weight training once or twice a week, in addition to taking dance class. Cross-training will add aerobic or strengthening work. Your activity of choice should make you moderately huffy-puffy and last for about an hour.

Another consideration in dealing with midlife body changes is that we need to revise the way we eat. As we age, our insulin, the hormone that regulates circulating blood sugar and fat deposition, may become less efficient, mostly due to inactivity. Eating regular meals, especially breakfast, is important. A good breakfast jumpstarts the metabolism and helps regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day.

What’s a good diet strategy to follow? A modified Atkins diet, which concentrates on protein consumption, keeps metabolism on track. There are similar regimens, such as the South Beach Diet, which replaces “bad” carbs and fats with “good” ones, and the Paleolithic diet, which is based on fiber and protein. What they all boil down to is the fact that we need fewer starchy carbohydrates as we age.

Be careful not to take these diets to the extreme. Carbohydrates are essential for energy and give the feel-good high of a serotonin release. A rigorous high-protein, low-carb strategy (in which you eat only a few carbohydrates per day) is guaranteed to backfire. One of my clients was on a medically supervised 600-calorie-per-day liquid diet for four months. Thankfully, she is not a dance teacher because she went through physical changes that would have made teaching difficult if not impossible, suffering from both fatigue and muscle pulls during the last portion of her program. Under-nourished and under-hydrated body tissues are fragile, so people whose dietary practices are extreme tend not to be very hardy or robust.

Another consideration in dealing with midlife body changes is that we need to revise the way we eat. A good breakfast jumpstarts the metabolism and helps regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day.

This patient entered a ketotic state (in her case, medically induced) during which the liver breaks down fat, bone, and muscle to keep the blood sugar stable. We are all in a state of ketosis when we wake up in the morning, and that’s why breakfast is very important. It doesn’t have to be a big meal, but it should have some staying power. Oatmeal, yogurt, eggs, and fruit are all good choices.

Most people can lose or maintain weight simply by avoiding regular consumption of starchy carbohydrates such as white potatoes, breads, pastries, and pastas. Whole wheat and gluten-free flour products are better but will still add pounds if you’re not careful.

Also, many adults tend to lose their tolerance for gluten. Again, this part of reaching adulthood is linked to the need to decrease the amount of breads and pastas we consume as our digestion changes over time. Basically, these body changes signal the need to simplify our diets on a daily basis.

Dairy products can be good choices since they provide both protein and carbohydrates. For those who are lactose intolerant, good alternatives are soy, almond, and oatmeal milks. Do check the fat content on dairy and alternative products because you may be consuming more fat than you’d like—never good for your heart. A completely fat-free diet is not recommended, but bear in mind that heart disease is still the number-one killer in the United States.

Think: all things in moderation. Julia Child was reported to have eaten everything she wanted to, just not in big portions. Social eating, fatty cheeses, and alcohol are part of “the good life” but can quickly add pounds. One teacher friend of mine has come up with a smart solution: she eats whatever she likes one day each week, which keeps her on track health- and weight-wise but also lets her enjoy the good things in life.

Another teacher I know said her perspective on dieting changed radically when she started concentrating on what to eat rather than what to restrict. As you move through the decades, this perspective will make maintaining a strong, healthy body as easy as (low-fat, vegan) pie.

Concentrate on eating several portions of protein each day. You can get protein from nuts, dairy, and full-grain products like oatmeal. I eat a half an avocado for lunch almost every day, not only because it’s a source of good fats and fiber but also because it has the most protein of any fruit. Eggs, chicken, and fish are good alternatives for people who want to avoid heavier meats.

Select root vegetables like beets, turnips, and yams because of their fibrous starches. Then add colorful vegetables like bell peppers, squash, and greens. Bring in fruits like papaya for digestion, watermelon for kidney health, and apples and blueberries for blood sugar regulation.

The big-picture goal? Make your routine simple, modify the trendy diets to healthier protocols, and embrace change.

I have faith in you.