Nutrition for Pole Dancers
I’m lucky enough to have a very close personal friend who happens to be a ridiculously knowledgeable, awesome, and intelligent nutritionist. Ellen has agreed to do an interview with me to drop some nutrition knowledge on the pole dancing masses. There are a lot of questions out there, and I’ve seen a lot of misinformation out there- especially from people who aren’t actually qualified to be advising on diet and nutrition!! Which is ironic really because in our community, we talk a lot about how important it is to be safe and knowledgeable as a pole instructor but then we don’t spend the same time researching what goes into our bodies and how to fuel ourselves. In preparation for this article, I asked people (on Facebook) what questions they had about nutrition, to understand what might be most useful in this post… and I got nearly a hundred comments asking variations on mostly the same things.
Ellen is actually an expert in nutrition. She has a deep background in public health and policy, and when she started having some chronic health issues, she found nutrition as a solution. As a pole dancer and instructor herself, she has found that coaching clients through food sensitivity and digestive issues has become a passion, especially simply teaching how a balanced diet of whole foods can entirely change one’s mental and physical health and help you reach your goals. You can read more about her journey on her website, A Balanced Table. There’s a lot of information here, so without further ado:
I know there is a ton of ground to cover and we could really talk for days- and I pick your brain all the time! So let’s start with broad strokes: do you find that the average pole dancer understands what they are putting or need to put in their body?
I’d like to throw in a little disclaimer: nutrition is a science, but it’s not an exact one, and every Body is different. For everything I say here, you could find entire dissertations that would disagree with me. No wonder everyone is so damn confused!
So, from what I can tell, the “average pole dancer” exists almost entirely off of carbs, eats very little protein and even less good fat, and is in a constant blood sugar crisis! I see all these people I call the “unaware healthy”: they eat chicken breast, fat free yogurt, salads with no dressing, egg white omelets, popcorn, and wraps. And they wonder why they have no energy, have to eat every 2 – 3 hours, and cannot put on muscle!
Our bodies are meant to run off of fat for long-burning fuel! Think about building a fire: if you use lots of small kindling, you burn through it quickly, and constantly have to add more. But if you use large logs, they burn slowly and last a long time. Fats are the logs of our diet, and carbs are the kindling. I spend a lot of time helping people convert from being sugar burners to fat burners.
Can you go into a little more detail about how we should be balancing carbs versus fats and proteins?
First, it’s important to note that bioindividuality is huge. What works for one person may have to be tweaked for another. But speaking in generalities, I start by having people eat a 40/30/30 balanced diet, of 40% carbohydrates (anything that comes from plants, focusing on vegetables and minimizing grains, and keeping fruit to 2 pieces or fewer per day), 30% protein, and 30% fat. Just getting this much fat and protein makes a lot of difference for most people (while also reducing the carbs they have almost always been overeating). So, what does this look like on a plate? Cover just about half your plate with veggies. Cover 1/3 of your plate with a good high quality protein like organic pasture raised chicken or beef. Then, add some fat. You don’t actually cover 1/3 of your plate with fats, since they are so much more satisfying and energy-dense. Put some butter on your veggies. Have a half an avocado. Top your sweet potato with coconut oil. Add nuts and seeds to your salads. Pretty much every meal, I’m using my protein and veggies as fat delivery vehicles. And always, always reach for protein and fat anytime you eat carbs. They’re what slow the absorption of the carbs and control spikes in blood sugar from carb-heavy meals. Apple = not a great snack. 1/2 apple + handful of nuts/cheese/hardboiled egg = balanced snack.
What did you mean when you say the average pole dancer is in a constant blood sugar crisis?
The blood sugar thing is a freaking epidemic, Amy. Epidemic! In a nutshell: your body works super hard to keep your blood sugar stable. When you eat some big carb-y sugar-y thing–whether it’s a plate of pasta, a bowl of fruit salad, or a package of Red Vines–your body sees that as an emergency. A bunch of hormones are pumped out to try to get your blood sugar down to normal again, which happens really quickly, which is why we get the crash after the blood sugar spike. Like, if I eat a plate of pancakes with maple syrup, 90 minutes later, even if I’m in the middle of CVS, I’m lying down. I’m done. Total blood sugar crash. So now I have a craving to eat a cookie or drink a mocha, because I need to get that sugar back up again. I eat the cookie, my blood sugar spikes again, and it all repeats: the blood sugar rollercoaster!
So, this is pretty unpleasant. No one likes crashes, cravings, headaches, moodiness, feeling hangry, having to eat every 2 hours, and binge eating. The rollercoaster also leads to sleep problems, as your hormone levels are all over the place and you can’t get into a restful sleep at night. If you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know why, or wake up after a full night’s sleep and feel exhausted, you have a blood sugar problem. And even more troublesome, the constant demand for these hormones leads to greater endocrine issues. Thyroid, ovaries, pituitary…I see problems with all of them. Not to mention, this rollercoaster is the first step down the road towards diabetes. And it all comes back to blood sugar.
I’ve heard the 40/30/30 principle also referred to as “counting macros’- where “macros” are either protein, fat, or carbs. When I see that mentioned in literature, it’s usually along with the idea that as long as you are eating to these general guidelines, you can actually eat without cutting out flavor and things you love. So, readers will want to know: can they still eat chocolate and cookies and ice cream?
I think people are pretty surprised when they hear I don’t count calories or recommend that anyone else does. I have no clue how many calories I eat in a day. I focus on eating the highest quality food I can, and I pay attention to balancing those ratios. Beyond that, if it’s REAL food, I eat it. Real food doesn’t have ingredients–real food IS ingredients. I eat dark chocolate every single day: 70 or 80%, organic, fair trade. I make my own almond flour low sugar cookies, or gluten free banana bread, with coconut oil and organic pasture-raised eggs (I don’t eat gluten or dairy). My food is full of flavor from herbs and spices, super satisfying from the healthy fats and proteins, and sustains all my activities and energy requirements. I think overall, if you are someone with stable blood sugar and no energy crashes, if you make excellent choices 80-90% of the time (8 or 9 out of every 10 things you eat), up to 20% of the time you can choose to indulge a little bit. That includes coffee! If you’re a fat burner with stable energy and you want a cup of coffee a day because you love it–not because you NEED it–then by all means, drink that anti-oxidant-rich coffee! (If you NEED that coffee though, you have a blood sugar problem, and we need to talk.)
Are there any other big “mistakes” you see pole dancers making with their nutrition?
The other big mistake I see a lot is a reliance on “fake foods” for convenient fuel—protein bars, shakes, packaged performance snacks, hydration drinks. These are pretty uniformly full of chemicals, preservatives, and poorly sourced ingredients. For people who simply must turn to a protein powder occasionally, there are some wonderful ones sourced from pure grass-fed organic goat and cow milk whey, organic egg whites, organic pastured beef collagen, or even some good organic vegan options. But I strongly believe that unless you are in extreme training mode, you can get everything you need to sustain you through any type of workout from real, properly prepared whole foods.If you are fueling your body all day every day with high quality nutrient-dense whole foods, you don’t need to do anything different before/after training. Just keep eating good, balanced meals.
So if we are eating to the 40/30/30 principle basically all the time– you mentioned that would work for everyone except those who are in “extreme training mode” what does that mean? What’s the threshold for extreme training levels and how do we know if we are hitting that? For those people, are there different things they should be doing pre and post-training?
I’m not sure there’s a distinct definition of “extreme training,” as that’s going to be different for everyone. Overall, I try to teach everyone to learn to listen to their bodies and pay attention to how they feel. If you are stepping up the amount of training you’re doing and you’re noticing more hunger, or not enough stamina to get through workouts, or disturbed sleep, it’s likely time to tweak what you’re eating. Athletes may find they need up to 40% protein, to allow their bodies to recover from all of the tissue breakdown that happens in training. They may also need to up their fat as well, as they have a greater need for energy, and fat fuels our sustained aerobic effort.
So, based on the assumption that you truly are in what is *heavy* training for you:
Pre-training, if you only have a few minutes, eat some healthy carbs—banana, dates—as quick fuel for your muscles, which won’t sit in your stomach and make you sluggish. Be prepared to run out of steam pretty quickly though. Optimally, an hour before (or more), you’d eat a balanced meal that includes a good dose of protein and fat as well as carbs. The fat will help regulate the carb absorption and maintain a steady stream of energy. 4 ounces of fish, some sautéed spinach in olive oil, ½ an avocado, and a small piece of fruit would be perfect.
After training, you need to eat amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to help with muscle repair. It’s best to wait 30 – 60 minutes post-training, as otherwise your digestion may not have fully kicked back in—exercise suppresses it. Proteins that are easy to digest, such as fish, eggs, and spirulina, are best. You should also add some healthy carbs so your body can rebuild the glycogen stores you expended while training—think half a sweet potato, or a small scoop of brown rice.
When people are in very heavy training, I recommend some protein before bed as well, to help fuel the overnight repair. Again, light and easy to digest are best. I also recommend a teaspoon of coconut oil at bedtime, for the liver to use overnight to fuel all the detox and recovery processes that happen while you sleep.
A quick note on eating during training sessions. If you’ve been fueling your body properly all day every day, you should easily be able to go HARD for 2 – 3 hours without needing to put something in your face. If you’re going longer than that, a quick snack mid-training that gives you fat + protein + carbs + minerals is a good idea: something like a homemade energy packet of coconut oil, almond butter, sea salt, and a dash of raw honey. And in terms of hydration, if you’re going to be truly sweating for more than an hour, add a pinch of unrefined real sea salt to your water for electrolytes.(Note: sweating does not mean sitting on the studio floor watching Instagram videos!) Very long sessions, you might want to add some BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) to your water bottle. You can also get some quick fuel during longer sessions from things like 2 – 4 oz fresh fruit juice or coconut water + 24 oz water, or 1 T maple syrup + pinch sea salt + 24 oz water.
I usually pole in the evening after work, well after lunch but before dinner so I’m typically wanting something to pep me up before I work out. What are some snacks that you can recommend for pre-pole or activity that are easy, pack well, and yummy?
If you plan ahead, the best thing is to eat a small balanced snack like I mentioned above, an hour before working out: 25 g of protein or so, some good fats, a small amount of complex carbs. A half a chicken breast and a half a sweet potato topped with coconut oil would be perfect. Throw it in your bento box and take it to work with you. Or a really good quality organic unsweetened pure whey protein shake to which you’ve added coconut oil, greens, a small amount of fruit, and some hemp seeds. Blenderize it at home in the morning, take it to work in your blender bottle and store it in the fridge. I love the idea of making something like an egg/salmon/veggie bake casserole, slicing it into squares, and taking a couple of those with you for pre-workout fuel. I also make my own “Lara bars”, but way better, with cashews, cashew butter, coconut, dates, and sea salt.
Eating well and fueling your body right requires planning. There’s just no way around it. You have to shop, you have to prep, you have to carry with you. Or, you have to live in some awesome urban area where you can go grab an organic paleo turkey patty and some avocado on your way to the studio! Most of us don’t have that on every street corner. If you’re already prepping great meals, it’s easy to also prep some to-gos for the next day. And I’m a huge fan of batch cooking–making a bunch of some yummy things, and eating off of them for days.
How much of an impact does aging have on what you should be eating? And what about generally fighting inflammation and injuries or eating for flexibility training–can we do that better through food?
….she asked the 46 year old pole dancing nutritionist! 😉 With age comes inflammation, which I think is a concern for all of us.
Eating lots of a wide variety of good fats is a great place to start, as our natural anti-inflammatory compounds are made from the fats we eat. On top of that, to help control inflammation that occurs from training, I recommend supplementation with high quality fish oil daily. Even better is fermented cod liver oil, as it’s also full of vitamins and minerals. Spices like turmeric, black pepper, ginger, and garlic are also great for this.
Hydration is one of the biggest keys to fighting pain and injury. You want to drink half your body weight in ounces of water a day, up to a maximum of 100 ounces. For every 8 ounces of coffee, soda, or juice you drink, add another 12 ounces of water. Keeping hydrated allows your tissues and joints to work well, and will help prevent injury by allowing your connective tissues to slide over each other properly. And stay away from hydration drinks and vitamin waters! Bone broth is another great way to fight inflammation while also getting hydrated.
Of course, anything that keeps you well-lubricated and inflammation-free is also going to be helpful to your tissues as you work on flexibility.
OK so we haven’t talked about weight loss. I know this is a concern for some readers. How do you recommend that someone modify their diet if they are trying to lose weight? Count calories, change the ratios of carb/fat/protein?
Total honesty moment: clients who come to me, who JUST want to lose weight, fill me with dread. No one likes to hear me say this, but weight loss is extremely complex. There can be literally dozens of reasons why the body will hang on to weight inappropriately. Sometimes we change the diet, get them doing all the right things, and don’t see results. Then, we start digging–and that’s where my functional lab testing background comes into play. Is there a gut infection? A yeast problem? How’s the thyroid working? What’s happening with the adrenal glands? Lots to look at and layers to peel back.
Now, having said that, practically everyone comes to me and says, “I really do eat pretty healthy, I don’t understand….” and their diet is actually full of carbs, totally low fat, and full of processed food-like substances. Cleaning up the diet, getting onto nourishing whole foods in the proper ratio, eating good fat to sustain you, these things all tend to naturally allow the body to reset to a good weight. People are amazed to watch the bloat melt away and see the muscles emerge. No counting calories, for sure. Calories are not all created equal–it’s all about quality.
No one likes to hear this either, but if you want to lose weight, you have to quit drinking. It’s pure sugar, wreaks havoc on the blood sugar, is inflammatory, and is a major roadblock to weight loss.
Here’s what I really think about this: I don’t actually care what you weigh. I care how you FEEL. Let’s fix that, and you’ll likely be amazed at what happens with your body.
Thanks Ellen for all of your expertise and time! I think that changing my relationship with my body over the years is something that I have learned so much about, and the way that I eat and think about food has changed a lot too. I love everything you have to say about eating real foods, that are good for you and satiating, and that this is really what you need to fuel yourself and your body—it makes so much sense!
Ellen is offering a special evaluation opportunity to readers, which is pretty awesome. She’ll take a look at your 3 day food journal, and make recommendations about how you can tweak your nutrition to better meet your specific goals. The 30-minute phone call and evaluation is $45. Email her at ellen at abalancedtable dot net to get started!