Iron Chef Ballroom: Eating Right at a Competition

By Nick Johnson

Picture the scene: on the road, a bus with 49 of your closest friends (literally), when the sun goes down, and you’ve depleted the budgeted reserve of oreos and mixed nuts. Drowsiness and a grumbling abdomen hound every breath when suddenly, the announcement comes over the PA that everyone on team has ten dollars each for dinner at the nearest Panera. It’s a classic choice: heavy on the starch, but lots of fancy fiber and slow burning carbs in vegetables and soups. But across the street, nary a minute’s jog, is the holy grail of cheap protein: Burger King. Not the namesake sandwiches, or even the fries, are the staple capturing your eye.  Tonight is about the nuggets. Two fifty for ten: or forty total for none of your own dime. Eighty-four grams of protein to satiate, to fuel the last four hours of bus ride and getting situated before grabbing a few hours of sleep before it’s time for hair and makeup. Doubling down on the buffalo sauce and keeping the receipt, your choice is made, and you trot back over to the Panera to impress your teammates with your capacity for processed domestic fowl.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well—not immediately, at least.

They fall down the hatch like the Ring into the mouth of Mount Doom, and you remain satisfyingly satiated all through the evening (and a bit of the continental breakfast as well, to be honest). When it comes time to don Smooth gear and your waistband is a bit snug, the bloating becomes noticeable. The effect of too much sodium relative to hydration makes itself known, not to mention not moving at all for four hours immediately following consumption. Rhythm gear is a near nightmare, stretchy fabric bulging over a swollen intestine, pitching posture out of whack and prioritizing self consciousness over floorcraft. In short, a very bad time.  

It’s simple to avoid this specific scenario (get a salad at Panera), but there are some general tips that fit almost everyone’s budget and the palette of most dancers I’ve encountered. First two tips: almonds and dark chocolate. They’re a good combo, cheap separate and easy to combine with a little time, a Ziploc bag, and a knife for chopping cheaper bar chocolate into mixable pieces. This combo contains a decent amount of protein and healthy oils from the almonds alongside quick energy sugars and a touch of caffeine from the chocolate. If pre-coated almonds are in your budget, that can save some time and prevent nut-dust from getting on your floats or tails. Personally, my favorite addition to the power couple is a friendly handful of dried cranberries (‘craisins,’ to some). Their tartness helps balance the richness of the first two.  

Water is a given. Staying hydrated is essential to keeping on top of your form, and some opt for sports beverages with electrolytes and sugars to replenish the body’s stores after generating that healthy glow during Mambo, Jive, Quickstep, and Viennese. Personally, leaving it simple makes keeping track of salt and sugar intake easier, but it’s more a function of what you’ll actually drink vs what’s theoretically best.

Same deal with food before the comp starts: three eggs benedict at the Marriott Watertable might tickle your taste buds and seem like an appealing combo with protein-rich eggs and hearty English muffins, but a cautionary tale about filling up on simple carbs and fatty, salty (delicious) hollandaise. Simple carbs will burn out fast, leaving one light headed and dizzy if not perfectly hydrated, and the eggs won’t be as filling when competing with the buttery sauce.

After some trial and error, as well as considering what’s available at the venue, the best-results breakfast seems to be in the neighborhood of:

  • A fruit to perk up for the first round. Banana is my favorite—solid enough to balance its own sugars, and a healthy dose of potassium to keep muscles limber and uncramped. Banana chips also make a great addition to the almond chocolate mix for throughout the day.
  • Some dairy. Milk, yogurt, soy milk, etc. are great for calcium, and some cultures from a kefir or greek yogurt to stabilize throughout the day are also important.
  • Lean protein. Egg whites or turkey sausage to the front of the line for this one, but the more fat you’re able to metabolize the wider the options here.  
  • Starch and bread are something to avoid early in the day, but for most it’s a good way to boost satiation without layering too much dense food into oneself.  

Author has no nutritionist training, just coaching and observation of self and teammates at competitions.

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