Your Body Knows Best: Understanding Intuitive Eating and Gentle Nutrition for Dancers
American University, MSNE
Mission: to explain how intuitive eating and gentle nutrition can play a role in maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
*Trigger warning – If you currently suffer or have suffered from disordered eating, please be advised that the article below discusses eating disorders and disordered eating patterns among the aesthetic sport of dance. There are wonderful resources to help those suffering that can be found at: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog-tags/special-topics
As babies we are not born knowing much and most knowledge comes from learning from the people and environment around us. From the start, we learn to follow our bodies cues – eating when we were hungry, stopping when full, and listening to what “feels right” for our specific body, because our body knows best. Over time, some begin to lose touch with those cues as we begin to integrate ourselves into society, especially in the time of adolescence. For young dancers, this is especially true. Many young girls begin dancing at a relatively young age, which while a great source of exercise and socialization, does have a heavy culture surrounding eating disorders, disordered eating patterns, and body-image issues. This only gets magnified during adolescent years where diet culture, social media, and peer pressure are introduced into a teen’s daily life.
In the art of dance there does seem to be a body size preference and expectation set, especially if performing competitively or looking to pursue the field at a collegiate level. Unfortunately, we see high levels of dancers suffering from disordered eating patterns, extreme dieting, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. In studies published between 1966 and 2013 it was found that 12% of ballet dancers suffered from disordered eating – 2% suffering anorexia, 4.4% suffering bulimia, and 9.5% being unspecified (Arcelus et al., 2014). From my twenty years of experience in the field of dance, this is definitely true, but there are also many young girls who deal with these issues undocumented. Adolescents intertwined between the visual art of dance and teenage years often succumb to disordered eating, which is characterized by frequent dieting, anxiety and guilt surround food and exercise, and over attentive and compulsive habits surrounding food (Anderson, 2018). Having been in the scene myself and now teaching for almost a decade, I have begun to understand the important of support for these girls. In 2012, a study found that aesthetic athletes in the age range of 13-17 are most influenced by teachers/instructors, peers, parents and other environmental factors (Francisco et al., 2012). For this reason, I find it important to tackle this issue head on, in order to combat disordered eating habits in young adolescent dancers through proper education, social support, and resources to succeed.
But where to start? How can we begin to fix this issue? Won’t talking about healthy eating cause more issues? This is where the topic of intuitive eating and gentle nutrition come into play. This is not a crash diet, a new way of eating, or something that will put extra attention and anxiety around food. The concept of intuitive eating is simple – go back to the basics by listening to your body. Feed it what it wants, and do not feed it what it doesn’t want. I know this all seems too good to be true, but it is what we did when we first came into this world as babies and developed into young children. We ate what felt good to us because we listened to our bodies cues. How does gentle nutrition fit into this you ask? Gentle nutrition would be seen as a great way to slowly introduce concepts surrounding nutrition without being overpowering to the individual. Many girls this age who struggle from disordered eating already have a good sense of healthy foods that should not be hammered into their brains. Instead, utilizing education and judgement about incorporating foods that are good for the body will help with overall health, without making it a main focus or topic to become anxious about.
The concept of intuitive eating is best described by the individuals who created the concept, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. They help individuals on a daily basis to find peace with food through their 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, consisting of rejecting diet mentality, honoring hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food “police”, discovering satisfaction in food, feeling fullness, coping with emotions, respecting one’s body, practicing movement, and honoring one’s health (Tribole & Resch, 2012). They also explain each of these principles in depth on their website:
Link to 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating:
For individuals who prefer a good listen, there are also many great resources on their site in the form of articles, interviews, and podcasts if you want to cut to the chase and skip over their book (though I do highly recommend this as well!). One of my favorite podcasts linked on their site is the Impossible Beauty interview with Evelyn Tribole called “Reconnecting with our bodies”. This explores how intuitive eating as a concept, can be incorporated into one’s food journey after years away from listening to one’s body cues. This can be accessed to here:
“Reconnecting with our bodies”
The concept of intuitive eating works so well in this case because it is an ongoing and malleable solution for the problem that is all too present in the field of dance, rather than work as a band-aid. In a 2013 study it was found that intuitive eating in young adults is in fact associated with fewer disordered eating behaviors due to the focus on listening to one’s body cues (Denny et al., 2013). In another 2016 study that explored mindful eating and intuitive eating as a guide to prevent disordered eating patterns while still maintaining a healthy weight, it was found that intuitive eating patterns did decrease overall BMI as well as disordered eating among college students (Anderson et al., 2016). This study also discovered that there was no correlation between mindful eating and disordered eating among the students (Anderson et al., 2016). This is why I believe intuitive eating along with gentle nutrition may be the best route for adolescent female dancers ages 13-17. If you would like to check out a guide that I have created that can assist with incorporating gentle nutrition into one’s intuitive eating habits, you can view my self-made infographic below:
Not only would this help relationships with food, but would also positively impact the mind and body of the youth, and the community at large by lessening the stigmas surrounding young dancers. This is why I plan to implement my program for young girls to be able to succeed when it comes to having a positive relationship with how they fuel their bodies. At the end of the day, our bodies know what is best for us, by following these cues, we can begin to live our happiest lives.
Anderson, L., Reilly, E., Schaumberg, K., Dmochowski, S., & Anderson, D. (2016). Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders, 21(1), 83–90. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-015-0210-3
Anderson, M. (2018). What is disordered eating? From https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating
Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G., & Mitchell, A. (2014). Prevalence of Eating Disorders amongst Dancers: A Systemic Review and Meta‐Analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22(2), 92–101. https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.2271
Denny, K., Loth, K., Eisenberg, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Intuitive eating in young adults. Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite, 60(1), 13–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.029
Eating Disorder Prevention. (2018). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/prevention
Francisco, R., Alarcão, M., & Narciso, I. (2012). Aesthetic Sports as High-Risk Contexts for Eating Disorders — Young Elite Dancers and Gymnasts Perspectives. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 15(1), 265–274. https://doi.org/10.5209/rev_SJOP.2012.v15.n1.37333
Kucharski, M. (2020). “Reconnecting with our BODIES” with Evelyn Tribole. From https://www.impossible-beauty.com/podcast/reconnecting-with-our-bodies-with-evelyn-tribole
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2019). 10 principles of Intuitive Eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/