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'Nutrition for the Performing Arts' course focuses on science behind peak performance

Students work together on a project in Dan Benardot's "Nutrition and the Performing Arts" course. Emory Photo/Video

It’s not quite 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, and every student in Emory College’s “Nutrition for the Performing Arts” is primed for Dan Benardot to start class. 

Some have, in fact, been performers, while others are or have been athletes. A few have never given much consideration to the link between their food and their performance.

Now they are all studying with Benardot, a PhD and registered/licensed dietician who has advised Olympians, NFL athletes and movie stars. His lessons have given students a new appreciation for how to translate the science behind the nutritional strategies he designed for professional athletes to their careers and lives, as well as those of performing artists.

“I’d always heard how breakfast was the most important meal of the day, but I never knew that if you skip breakfast, you’ll be hyperinsulinemic and, as Dr. Benardot says, be a fat-making machine,” says Jerry Yue, a junior biology major who ran cross country for Oxford College. 

Low-blood sugar can create loss of lean mass, fat gain, difficultly concentrating and other symptoms.

“I’m going to need peak endurance for medical school, so now I know why I should not only eat breakfast but take breaks to refuel throughout the day,” Yue adds.

Such insight is built into the framework of courses in the Center for the Study of Human Health, a unique program that integrates Emory’s excellence in the liberal arts with its cutting-edge scientific research.

Whether on campus or in public debate, rarely do conversations not touch on some aspect of health. By offering courses such as Benardot’s, the program creates the tool kit for students to have those conversations on a deeper level.

Teaching “counterintuitive” best practices

For Benardot, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University, becoming a human health professor of practice is another chance to deliver information that many think they know but don’t.

Whether explaining why low-calorie diets don’t help you lose body fat, how supplements rarely make us healthier or the mistaken idea that aerobic exercise makes you fit – he says “counterintuitive” a lot. 

“People try to oversimplify nutrition, which means there are a lot of errors that people believe,” Benardot says. “Nutrition is not a belief system. It’s science.”

Consider the conventional wisdom that eating the same number of calories each day as you expend will keep your weight steady. That idea oversimplifies the reality that the body works in real time, not daily units, and will adapt by slowing your metabolism in real time if you cut enough calories to impact normal endocrine response, he says. 

Maximizing energy efficiency can be as simple as sipping a properly formulated sports beverage – his science-based recommendations include looking for drinks with glucose as the sugar versus high fructose corn syrup – before and during an event or performance. That combined with eating a small amount before an event will sustain energy balance.

The mix becomes even more complicated for performers who have large peaks and valleys of energy expenditure during the long course of their work.

That strategy has helped Olympic figure skaters, gymnasts and marathoners earn medals. In fact, Benardot was the nutritionist for the USA marathoners at the 2004 Olympic games, where Meb Keflezighi’s silver medal and Deena Kastor’s bronze medal were the first two American medals in the event in the same Olympics. He was also the nutritionist for the American gymnastics team in the 1996 Olympics, which won its first ever team gold medal.

Nutrition for artists

As a former downhill ski racer and cellist, Benardot noticed that performing artists had no nutrition information that was equivalent to what is available to athletes, even though both endure years of training and need stamina and energy to perform well.

His interest grew as he worked with actors in movies and TV shows being filmed in Georgia – he can’t discuss specific actors due to non-disclosure agreements – and helped them achieve similar career highlights.

“The human physiology of athletes and non-athletes is essentially the same, yet I would challenge you to find an equivalent science-based nutrition review for artists,” he says.

The Human Health course aims to counter that. Guest lecturers, including concert musicians, professional dancers and actors, have presented to the class and taken questions. 

As a final project, students must create nutritionally-related recommendations for hydration, injury prevention and recovery, energy balance and other issues for various performing artist categories.

Benardot, who authored the American College for Sports Medicine’s "Nutrition for Exercise Science" and is working on the third edition of his book “Advanced Sport Nutrition,” sees the recommendations as the first step toward creating materials that target performers. 

His students, meanwhile, see science as something practical to inform their lives. Those who didn’t eat breakfast now do. 

Sophomore Sabrina Flores also has begun planning snacks between classes, to help sustain her blood sugar and keep her focus intact.

“I want to know down to the biological and chemical level what will really help and what will really work for my body,” says Flores, who switched her planned major from business to human health after tearing her ACL last summer and researching the science on her own. 

Elena Bowie, a sophomore human health major thinking of a career in global health, has adjusted her opinion of supplements. She’s already explained to a friend who takes supplements that they won’t be needed if she just eats a wider variety of food. 

Junior Sarah Katz, a human health major who plays second base on Emory’s softball team, has shared the advice of sipping Gatorade with friends and teammates. 

Jin Young Choi has made similar changes to when and how he eats. But Choi, a senior with a double major in human health and Spanish, has also begun to plan how he will approach meals when he can no longer count on getting swiped into the DUC-ling for a meal.

“This class is like having a doctor in an academic setting, explaining how we can transform our lives through very simple behavioral changes around eating,” he says. “Food is fundamental to who we are, and the right nutrition is the one thing we can all address for a good life.”

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