Okay, several words. And I mean diet in the sense of general nutritional habits, not the kind you feel the need to go on after the Christmas food coma. Food intake is a big deal seeing how we’d all be somewhat dead without it. It is even more important for hobby and professional athletes, and of course for our favourite artist-athlete-hybrids, the dancers. It’s well-known that your diet can make or break your performance levels. Many adult beginners also seem to be self-conscious about their weight when dancing.
I haven’t touched on this topic before because my views on it are moderate. I favour methods firmly backed by science, but whatever works for you is fine. If you’re looking to lose weight or improve your lifestyle, do be wary of fad diets. If «LowBulletRawPaleoVeganJuice™» promises to transform you into a Kardashian within four weeks, requires you to buy expensive branded products or completely forbids you from eating any of your favourite foods ever again, it might not be the ideal way to go. And since some proponents of fad diets also have a taste for human flesh: If «LowBulletRawPaleoVeganJuice™» has worked for you, that is fine. If you are aware of possible risks associated with «LowBulletRawPaleoVeganJuice™» and willing to accept them, that is fine. Just remember there is no one perfect diet for everyone – not even «LowBulletRawPaleoVeganJuice™».
I did manage to successfully change my diet to something I was happier with before I started dancing, so maybe my personal experience will be of interest to someone who is looking to do the same. Just please be aware that you do not owe it to anyone to lose weight. If you want to, that is fine. But you are beautiful and you can dance beautifully no matter what kind of body you have. If you disagree with this statement on general principles, please read Dances With Fat. If you think people of one body type or another should/shouldn’t do [insert activity here], please reconsider, as it is very demeaning and I believe you’re better than this.
Now that we have brought the lengthy disclaimer behind us, here’s the Dork’s journey from a moderately unhealthy to a moderately healthy diet. First things first: I absolutely love food. I adore it. I celebrate it. Food features in many of my fondest childhood memories. That said, I rarely, if ever, cook. I have always had a basic understanding of healthy eating and lifestyle thanks to my mother, though we didn’t live by it religiously. Food was there to be enjoyed in my family.
Despite my karate obsession, I was a chubby teen. Once I moved out to go to university at the age of nineteen, I lost a lot of the chubbiness simply by being too lazy to cook supper and too poor to buy it. I did not bother with nutritional values in any way. During the semester, I would eat lunch at the canteen. During holidays, I would live on yoghurt, eggs and rice. Two problems: It netted me a mild iron deficiency and I developed lactose intolerance in my twenties, making canteen food, drowned in cream and butter, a poor choice.
Then, almost six years ago, I met my wonderful SO, who not only can cook, but enjoys it. (The way to whose heart is through whose stomach now, proverb?!) His family was kind enough to let us live with them at first. The SO’s wonderful mother is also a brilliant cook. It was a delicious time and I regret nothing. We moved out to our own flat eventually, but continued to eat to our hearts’ content.
Three years of comfort foods (basically anything containing obscene amounts of cheese) and no sports later I was not feeling my best. I toyed with the idea of taking up karate again, but showing up in a dojo in this unfit state would’ve gotten me the Most Embarrassing Brown Belt In The History Of Kyokushin Award. It was the summer of the bachelor thesis and I needed something to keep me sane, so I started Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym bodyweight training program and downloaded Noom, a calorie counter app strong on gamification. (You can get me to do anything with gamification, as I have written here and here.)
Without going into too much detail, I lost a couple of kilos, gained a lot of strength and started to feel much better by the end of the summer. I got an idea what macronutrients, caloric density and «balanced diet» meant. I learned what a serving size was and how many calories there actually were in which foods, especially in foods marketed as «healthy». I realised I was often eating out of boredom or frustration. What I always liked about Noom is that it is not militant: You can have your cake, and eat it, too. Just maybe not the entire cake all at once, ok? Slowly, the SO and I tweaked some of our eating habits.
These tweaks are still in effect today. Our summer supper consists of leafy greens with chicken, steak, tofu or grilled cheese instead of a pasta dish. Bonus: much easier to prepare – even I could do it! Not that I do. But I could. In the winter,
we make the SO makes delicious vegetable stir-fries. We use lots of pre-cut or frozen vegetables because it saves a lot of time. If you prefer fresh, that is fine. We still eat crisps, crackers or cookies while watching Netflix or gaming, but not the whole packet anymore. I bought cute little bowls just for snacks. For lunch at work, I usually grab a salad at the supermarket.
Eventually, I noticed how my taste changed. It was difficult to eat lettuce instead of delicious spaghetti carbonara at first. Now, I feel very indifferent towards carbonara in the summer heat. We can make some once the weather cools down a bit. We still order pizza sometimes, but it’s getting rare. Even a small pizza equals a slightly upset stomach for a day. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes, it does. Then we order the pizza and enjoy it – and are satisfied again for a good long while. The same goes for other comfort foods.
I refuse to feel guilty about eating «unhealthy» food, but I do make a point of really treating myself. If I want a burger, I’ll eat a really awesome one from the local hipster joint and not the pathetic one from McBurgerMonarchy. If I crave chocolate, well, this is Switzerland. Eating Snickers bars while you are in Switzerland should be outlawed. I will never say no to delicious home-made or confectioner’s cake. The supermarket cake will never taste as good, so I don’t bother with it. Sure, this way it’s (much) more expensive. But if I space the treats out accordingly, it does not end up costing more – but I do get ever so much more enjoyment and much less regrets.
Once the new habits were set, I stopped counting calories and was able to keep my weight where I feel comfortable with it. When I started dancing, it became even easier. I rarely use the scale now. Some months, I will eat more, some less. Dancing has also shifted my priorities in what I think is the right direction for me. Weight, looks and clothing sizes became less important. Performance became first priority. And if I feel that I could do with just a smidge less fat reserves, I know exactly which snacks I can safely go without.
So this is what changing my diet has been like for me. My methods may not work for you. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Weight, metabolism and activity as well as your financial situation, time, food availability and personal preference play a huge role in determining what will or will not work for you. It took some dedication and time to learn what was right for me. It was hard at first, but became easier once I started noticing the first results (about two months in). Now it is natural.
It may be easier or much harder for others, but some work is always involved. Recruit your nearest and dearest – something like this is very hard to do without the support of the other members of your household. Learn about nutrition, but remember to listen to your body. Changing your diet doesn’t have to feel awful or equal starvation. In fact, brutal caloric restriction with very fast weight loss can permanently slow your metabolism, as the New York Times reported last year. Another reason to be wary of restrictive diets that promise too much weight loss too fast. For the sake of physical and mental health, focus on what your body can do, not on what it can’t eat. Even if it can’t do much yet, it can improve with practice.
If you want more food and fitness blogging, I’m not it. This is my only post on the subject and will remain so for the forseeable future. I recommend the Canadian fitness writer James Fell. He swears a lot (which makes him dear to my heart) and backs his writing with scientific evidence (even better). You don’t have to buy his books: he has tons of free articles and blog posts.
What are your experiences with nutrition, good and bad? Did you manage to permantently change your diet? How difficult was the change for you?