By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
Dancers tend to be cautious about fat in their diets. This is completely understandable given that we have to look good in tights and fat is a very concentrated source of calories. Fats have nine calories per gram versus four calories per gram from carbs or proteins. But what about all the reported benefits of coconut oil, olive oil and omega-3s? Would a dancer’s bone health be at risk without adequate fat to help absorb and metabolize bone building vitamins D and K, both of which are fat-soluble? Plus, fat makes food more palatable, and helps you feel fuller longer. Smart choices and moderation are what we need for this misunderstood, but tasty, nutrient.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting 25-30% of your total calories from fat. As a dietitian for dancers, I typically recommend getting 25% because it’s necessary, but we don’t want to get too much. It is saturated fat that you want to avoid. Recommendations are to get less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat. We all should entirely avoid trans fats. Trans fats undergo hydrogenation, which makes them more shelf stable. Baked goods, doughnuts, fried foods and chips are sources of this heart-damaging fat. As athletes, our cardiovascular system is a big part of what makes us perform well and it makes sense to eat foods that support the one muscle that never stops working. Most teenagers and adults can eat between 35 to 60 grams of total fat per day, but choose your sources of fat wisely, picking plants such as nuts, seeds, avocados and small amounts of unsaturated oils. Portions matter! All foods naturally contain some fat. Even green beans and other veggies have a little.
What does 25% of total calories really mean?
It’s different for everyone, but for approximately 2,000 calories per day, 500 of those can be from fat. This amounts to up to 55 grams per day. A pat of butter, 1/3 hamburger patty or 2 tablespoons of avocado all contain about 5-8 grams of fat, but the different kinds of fats in these foods can have profoundly different effects on the body.
The importance of fats
Fats provide critical biological functions in the body. Phospholipids are components of cell membranes, and glycolipids are components of brain tissue. Fat can also be an important fuel source during a long show. Fats are essential for the absorption of vitamins A, E, D and K.
Different types of fat
You want to replace saturated fats with unsaturated sources. When you hear of saturated or unsaturated fats (both poly and monounsaturated), those terms are referring to the structure or the chemical bonds. The structure can influence how it is metabolized by the body and then how it is used by cells. Different types of fat can also have different effects on athletic performance. Coconut oil is popular now. While it is very saturated and should be eaten in moderation, it has the type of fat that can be absorbed rapidly and can be a quick fuel source before dancing.
Below are some examples of fat sources. These are all naturally a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but this gives a general idea of which fat sources are healthier options.
Saturated Fat (usually solid at room temperature) includes:
- Meats, cheeses, butter, chocolate, coconut oil, palm oil, shortening, hydrogenated oils/ trans fats.
Linked to heart disease, hardening of the arteries, higher cholesterol, cancer, liver disease and poorer athletic performance.
Poly and Monounsaturated fats (usually liquid at room temperature) includes:
- Oils from flax, safflower, canola, olive, sesame. All seeds such as chia, flax, hemp, and sunflower. All nuts such as walnuts, almonds, peanuts.
Linked to decreased cholesterol, better heart health, lower risk for cancer.
Omega-3s/ fish oils (Unsaturated and considered “essential” because the body can’t make them):
- Flax and chia seeds, walnuts, cold water fish, canola oil, soy, wheat germ.
Linked to decreased inflammation, lower risk for depression, improved brain function and better heart health.
Making good choices when dancing
Because fat slows stomach emptying and digestion, choose a high carbohydrate meal that is moderate in protein and low in fat one hour or more before a show or rehearsal. Nerves can affect digestion as we all know. Options could be a low fat meal of pasta with light marinara sauce (easy on the oil) or rice, veggies and edamame or a veggie burger on bread with a side of carrots. During long class or rehearsal days, try trail mix with nuts and seeds with a carb like pretzels or crackers. Add flax or chia seeds to your oatmeal in the mornings.
Anyone who is watching their weight and wants better performance doesn’t need to fear fat, they just need to be smart about not eating too much and getting their fat sources from plants.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.dancernutrition.com
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