Professional ballet dancers must follow a diet precisely crafted to provide the nutrients necessary for optimum performance while maintaining the ballet aesthetic. True professionals have distinct nutritional needs. A typical day may involve a morning class, followed by several hours of rehearsal, followed by a performance. If you are simply trying to lose weight by emulating a ballerina, a professional's diet is likely too high-calorie for you. If you are a serious student looking to go pro, learning proper nutrition ahead of time can give you an edge.
The ballet aesthetic includes a slim, fluid, unbroken line from the tips of the toes to the top of the head. Professionals must generally maintain a body mass index in the low end of the normal range -- usually about 18 to 20 -- but a low body fat percentage of about 13 percent. The calories you need are based upon your age, size and training schedule, so consult your doctor or use an online calculator to determine your particular needs. To give you a rough idea, the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science recommends 20 to 23 calories per pound of body weight per day for female dancers in heavy training, which can burn up to 3,000 calories per day.
The IADMS recommends that 55 to 60 percent of your calories come from carbs, 20 to 30 percent from fat, and 12 to 15 percent from protein. Carbohydrates are your main source of both instant and stored fuel, so if you find yourself crashing toward the end of class, a low-carb intake could be to blame. Protein is important for muscle repair and support -- eating too little allows muscle degradation, which makes for limp pas de chats and sluggish grand battements. Fat is another energy source. Having too little may force your body to feed off of muscle protein when fuel stores run low. Fat is high-calorie, so stay toward 20 percent if you tend to overweight, but do not dip below that.
Get your carbs from fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid refined grains and sugar, which are the main culprits behind energy crashes. Protein sources must be lean, like fish and skinless poultry. Occasional beef is okay, as long as you stick to lean cuts like tenderloin and sirloin. Dairy is another source of protein, but choose nonfat or low-fat versions to keep saturated fat intake down. Get your fats from olive oil, nuts and nut butters, and fatty cold-water fish like salmon. Meal replacement bars come in handy for refueling during grueling rehearsal days, but don't rely on them as your sole nutrition source.
For dancers, timing is everything, and that includes nutrition. Starving yourself all day to save calories for a big dinner will leave you vulnerable to overeating, and you won't dance at your peak on an empty stomach. Eat several small meals per day, and include both carbs and protein at every meal. Have breakfast at least an hour before a morning class, but keep the fat content low so it digests quickly. Extended classes or rehearsals usually require refueling every two or three hours -- keep a sports bar in your bag, and break off a three-or-four-bite piece every two hours to keep your energy up. This is especially important during summer intensives, where you may be in one class or another for 10 hours per day. Eat within an hour of your final dance of the day to replenish your depleted body, and keep late-night, post-performance meals light and low-fat so they have time to digest before bed.