The Diet that Changed my Life
January 1997 - The Times
Of necessity, I have a lifelong association with food. My relationship with nutrition, however, does not stretch back quite so far. This may come as a surprise to those who assume that dancers, dependent on copious quantities of energy, are well versed in the merits of the humble potato and the pre-event pasta feast. But the report Fit to Dance, published in October by Dance UK and the Gulbenkian Foundation, was conclusive in its findings that most dancers' diets were poorly balanced, and that they seldom received any nutritional guidance.
I was no exception, and for the first 12 years of my professional life (there have been 16 so far) fought a constant battle between maintaining the lean body type that is required in classical ballet, and having enough energy to do the job. It was an uneven struggle: me and my misguided efforts against the centuries-old organism that is the human body.
Four years ago, the conflict was resolved when I met Torje Eike, a chartered physiotherapist, who explained the connection between the food we eat and the energy that it supplies. It was no longer a question of avoiding eating: rather, one of actively seeking out the right food at the right time to enhance my work. I was now encouraged to see it as an ally, as essential in the preparation for performance as choosing the right pointe shoes.
Much of my confusion was embedded in one small word which we liberally employ without much real understanding of its meaning. In any discussion of weight control, we are encouraged from all quarters to cut calories, and this was the route I had always followed in attempts to sustain a sylph-like silhouette. It is widely assumed that the calories present in any foodstuff will indicate how fat we will become if we eat that food. This is not what they tell us. The calorific content is an indicator of the energy supplied by that food. So by reducing the number of calories we take in, we are limiting the amount of energy available to us. As a dancer, I was limiting my ability to do the work required of me.
I might then have reasoned that the more calories I consumed, the more energy I would have, and set about eating as much as possible. Unfortunately, this is only part of the picture, and many failed diets result from incomplete grasp of the facts. All calories are not equal; some are more useful than others, and this depends largely on what you intend to use them for. As the front page of last Friday's Times confirmed in a report of recent research published in the British Medical Journal, it is not the number of calories that matters, but where it is they come from.
We take in calories from three nutrients: fat, protein and carbohydrates, and also from alcohol. The body needs a certain amount of each (except alcohol) for its healthy functioning. Whereas both carbohydrate and fat can be converted to supply energy, protein is only an energy source in extreme circumstances, and even so it must be converted to glucose first.
The body has two distinct systems for the supply of energy, and they are fuelled in different ways. The aerobic system predominates when the exercise is of low intensity and long duration. It can be fuelled by either carbohydrate or fat, depending on the length of time spent exercising. Fat molecules are big and difficult to break down, and it takes about 20 minutes for the fat-burning cycles to gear up. That is why the type of exercise designed to promote fat loss is often called endurance exercise. For an activity to be fuelled by the body's fat stores it must be of such low intensity that it can be sustained over at least this length of time - brisk walking as opposed to fast and furious running. Once the fires are stoked, the body can go on burning fat almost endlessly. Most of us have more than enough fat stored to fuel a walk from Land's End to John O'Groat's.
The anaerobic system prevails when the activity is of high intensity and is consequently sustainable over a very short period. The only fuel that can supply energy anaerobically is carbohydrate. Almost all dancing is anaerobic; short, repeated bursts of high intensity activity where the energy demand is so great and so rapid that there is no time for fat to be broken down and contribute to the supply. To meet this demand, the greatest proportion of a dancer's diet, at least 60 per cent, should be carbohydrate.
But dancers, like much of the population, are still labouring under the Great Protein Myth of the Sixties. We have been educated to see protein as "good" food; even its name translates as "of prime importance". It is certainly true that protein is vital to our health, although not in the quantities we imagine, but it is not true that eating more protein will give us bigger muscles. At the same time, we have been taught to avoid carbohydrates - sugar and starches - in the mistaken belief that they are fattening. Foods that are high in carbohydrates generally contain no fat. On the other hand, many protein-rich foods are also very high in fat. Lean steak, beloved fare of the traditional dieter, derives only 40 per cent of its calories from protein, the rest from fat.
I tried for years to lose weight on a diet that was protein-based, and almost totally lacking in carbohydrates. In addition to the energy required in a physically active career, the brain requires at least 120 grams of carbohydrate a day to survive. Where they are not available, the body first turns to its protein stores - its own muscles - as a second-rate fuel source. It is yet another dietary myth that a body deprived of carbohydrates will burn its fat. It does not have the direct mechanisms to do so. As dancing relies entirely on carbohydrates as an energy source, and as it is unable to utilise as a fuel either the protein or the fat, which I was taking in along with it, it is not surprising that I struggled to perform adequately and to control my appearance.
The dietary requirements of a dancer are not very different from those of the normal adult population. As a rough guide, we should all derive about 60 per cent of our calories from carbohydrate, 30 per cent from fat, and 10 per cent from protein, and we should take in enough calories to supply our basic nutritional requirements. No one should try to subsist on fewer than 1,400 calories a day without medical supervision.
This means I eat large quantities of pasta, bread and other starchy foods, unlimited fruit and vegetables, occasional portions of chicken and fish and I consciously limit the amount of fat I eat. Fat enhances flavour, and for that reason it is often an ingredient in packaged and processed foods.
The BMJ concluded that this type of low fat, high carbohydrate diet was superior to the more traditional fixed-calorie diet in maintaining weight, and I have found that my weight has stabilised without any hardship. When this regime is combined with aerobic exercise it provides the perfect game plan for a long-term reduction in body fat.
From my own experience, I can say that I have been neither hungry nor lacking in energy for the past three years, and the struggle to control my weight is now a thing of the past. Perhaps the greatest indication of this turnaround lies in the fact that I now teach nutrition to the students of the Royal Ballet School. Sound nutrition forms the foundation for physical performance: it provides the fuel for the work we do and the chemicals for extracting and using the energy within this fuel. I believe that young dancers should enter the profession armed with this knowledge so that they can make informed decisions about their diet.
If I had been told, a decade ago, that I would conquer my enemy to such an extent that I would end up proselitysing on the subject, I would not have laughed. My despair was so absolute, I think I would have cried.