5 Tips for Healthier, Happier Holiday Nutrition

December 20, 2021

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the holiday season, you’re not alone. This time of year, chaotic Nutcracker performance schedules and holiday festivities often provoke mixed emotions for ballet dancers. If you’re struggling to heal your relationship with food, it can be even more difficult.

Our culture is obsessed with dieting, and, as a result, feelings of food anxiety are especially high during this season. Combine this with end-of-year cast parties and vacations (or staycations), and you could be facing anything but a festive time. This holiday season, use these five actionable tips to navigate your journey towards a stress-free relationship with food and your body.

1. Strengthen Your Mental Muscle

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As the New Year approaches, diet culture surrounds us with “New Year, New You” promises that often involve unsustainable habits around food and exercise. Social media makes it even harder to escape such messaging, so you’ll want to detox your media feeds. Unfollow triggering accounts and replace them with professional resources that promote more helpful food and body messaging. A simple Pinterest search for “positive food and body affirmations” can offer reminders that focus on self-appreciation rather than self-ridicule. On Instagram, body-positive advocates like Colleen Werner (@colleenmwerner), mental health professionals like Dr. Rachel Goldman (@drrachelnyc), and food and nutrition experts like myself (@tothepointenutrition) are all examples.

2. Focus on Food Flexibility

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Can you eat a meal at a holiday gathering without knowing its ingredients? Can you enjoy a spontaneous post-performance cast party? Being flexible with your food choices is an essential step in healing your relationship with food. This is especially true if you’re navigating snack tables and dessert shares backstage. First, grant yourself unconditional permission to eat and enjoy all foods that appeal to your senses. Rather than avoiding an unfamiliar option, use mindful eating techniques. To do this, take some time to discover the flavors, aromas and textures of the food you’re eating. If you’re struggling to find an option that fits into your otherwise “clean” eating plan, reconsider the sustainability of that plan. Clean eating is a dieting technique that focuses on eating foods in their most whole and unprocessed forms. Though it may sound harmless, clean eating is a restrictive—and sneaky—guise for “healthy” eating that often leads dancers to disordered eating.

3. Shift Your Mindset: No Food Is Inherently “Good” or “Bad”

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Identifying foods as “bad” or “good” is a tactic used by diet culture to evoke food guilt, shame and anxiety. Work toward stripping the moral value from your food choices. Eating more indulgent foods does not make you “bad.” You’re also not “unhealthy” for enjoying dessert. Similarly, choosing an otherwise “clean” food doesn’t give you a superior edge.

4. Consider Gentle Nutrition

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Gentle nutrition is a principle of intuitive eating that teaches you how to utilize nutrition education in a less obsessive way. Let nutrition guide your choices, not dictate them. It is true that some foods are more nutritious than others, especially regarding eating to fuel your dancing for peak performance. But this doesn’t mean that you should avoid options that might be considered less nutrient-dense.

Build a nonrestrictive fueling plan that supports sustainable energy. This involves a balance of complex carbohydrates from grains and starchy veggies, protein (animal or plant-based), and fats. Being less obsessive means you’re open to all choices. Real-life example: Your mid-rehearsal snack might look like an apple paired with nut butter. But to get through those last 15 minutes of Act II, your peer’s homemade Christmas cookie can be a perfect energy booster. Feeling confused? Seek support from a licensed professional, such as a registered dietitian nutritionist, to craft a nonrestrictive fueling strategy.

5. Explore Your Intent

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Sure, there are performance perks to a “healthy” diet. Enhanced endurance, strength building, active recovery and optimal energy are examples. But the true performance perks come from having an even healthier relationship with food. While food plays a major role at our holiday tables, so does time with family and catching up with friends. Before you get to the meal, reflect upon its purpose. If your holiday meal is a “cheat” meal, then chances are you’re sacrificing an otherwise joyous experience.

Before you let food stress get in the way of your holiday season, remember that health is multifaceted. It extends further than just your physical abilities onstage. Contrary to popular belief, food can support your mental and emotional well-being in a way that strengthens your artistry and frees you from restrictive eating behaviors. The goal is to feel good—physically, mentally and emotionally—and to build experiences that shape who you are as a dancer, a friend, a family member and so forth. These experiences will enable you to add depth to your performances onstage.