Dance Health

Five foods to avoid before your holiday performance

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Photo Paul Kolnik.
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

It’s Nutcracker time. Many non-dancers might not realize how much energy it takes to get through a long run of shows. Since dancers are performing athletes, there are many factors to consider when choosing the right pre-show foods. Here are just a few to limit or avoid and some alternatives that might be better choices for energy and health. Study after study show that carbohydrates are always the body’s preferred source of fuel for performance. Performance-enhancing sources of carbohydrates are foods such as fruits, vegetables, oats, rice and other whole, minimally processed grains like quinoa, wheat or barley, for example. The important thing is to not step on stage with an empty stomach, which will affect a dancer’s jump height, endurance and strength.

#1. Cheeseburgers 

Foods high in saturated fat and protein take a little longer to digest than foods that are high in carbohydrate but moderate in fat and protein. Dancers about to perform need food that won’t sit like a rock on the stomach during the show. They need fuel that is easily digestible like rice, oats, quinoa, whole grain or gluten-free pasta, peas and soy.   

Instead, choose: Quinoa burger with avocado on a whole grain or gluten-free bun, either homemade (quinoa cooks in 15 minutes, so it can be easily made ahead) or a brand like Hilary’s World’s Best, for example.  

#2. Protein shakes with whey protein powder 

As a dietitian, dancers tell me over and over that they don’t understand why they don’t have enough energy when they have a protein drink before dance. It’s because the body doesn’t like to use protein for energy but instead prefers to spare protein and save it for important biological processes and muscle repair. The body will use protein if you don’t offer it any other choice (like carbohydrates), but this is not the preferred source of fuel for dancers who are more like a sprinter than a marathoner. A low carb protein drink will undoubtedly leave you feeling sluggish, precisely because it’s low carb. In addition, whey is derived from cow’s milk, and dairy can cause allergic reactions, bloating and increase mucus production in many people.  

Instead, choose: A blended fruit smoothie with almond or soy milk and seeds of your choice. Sweeten by adding a date, raisins or goji berries instead of table sugar. Enjoy with a piece of toast or whole grain crackers. This provides a quick source of easily absorbed carbohydrates for energy. 

#3. Super-caffeinated “energy” drinks 

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, not something that actually provides real energy. Only food can be converted in the body to provide energy to working cells. Certainly caffeine is considered an ergogenic aid in sports nutrition, meaning it can potentially decrease the perception of effort and increase alertness in people who are used to its effects. However, there is a big caveat with caffeine that too much will exacerbate your already jittery pre-performance nerves. 

Instead, choose: Green tea, which has some caffeine but only a fraction of what an “energy” drink supplies, or choose a caffeine-free electrolyte-infused rehydration drink. Either way, stay hydrated! 

#4. Cookies or candy 

A few cookies or pieces of candy isn’t going to hurt anyone, and as a former Sugar Plum myself, I remember that we often had a few delicious treats in our Nutcracker dressing room to help us get through all those shows. That’s fine. If you are relying on just these to get you through a whole performance or even just the first act, however, you are going to run out of fuel pretty fast. Snow scene is long; you have to eat real food, not a bunch of sugar. Make sure you have had a real meal one to two hours before curtain.  

Instead, choose: A cinnamon maple oat bar like the Bobo’s brand, or a homemade one like Emily’s Almond Oat Energy Rolls.

#5. Bacon, sausage or other processed meats 

These are high in saturated fat and nitrates, which negatively affect the cardiovascular system both in the short- and long-term. They cause inflammation, and the World Health Organization has linked them to higher risk for a variety of cancers. C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 are both biomarkers that researchers use to determine if something causes inflammation in the body. Both of these become elevated when an individual consumes red meat and particularly processed meats1,2,3,4,5.   

Instead, Harvard School of Public Health recommends choosing other protein sources such as beans, peas, seeds, legumes, fish or poultry for those who choose to eat chicken. These have been shown to be much less inflammatory.  

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RDN, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.

Emily Harrison Dance NutritionistEmily 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

1. Weiwen C, et al. Dietary red and processed meat intake and markers of adiposity and inflammation: the multiethnic cohort study. J Am Coll Nutr 2017 Jul: 36(5):378-385. 
2.  Ley SH, Sun Q, Willet WC, et al.  Associations between red meat intake and biomarkers of inflammation and glucose metabolism in women.  American J of Clin Nutr. Feb 2014.  
3. Davis G.  Proteinaholic.  Harper Collins 2015.
4. Carcinogenicity of Consumption of Red and Processed Meat. Lancet Oncol 2015.
5. Harvard School of Public Health.

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