Kalani Hilliker in Capezio. Photo by Chris Reilly.
Kalani Hilliker in Capezio. Photo by Chris Reilly.
Health & Fitness Nutrition

Foods to Build Long Lean Muscles

  • September 25, 2013
  • by Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD for Dance Informa

One of the defining characteristics of a dancer’s body is well defined muscles.  The waif like look of the 80’s has evolved into a more diverse, athletic, toned body shape. We all are born with certain genetics, but good training, long hours in the studio, and smart dietary choices all shape the look of a dancer’s body.   We now know that food choices play a much bigger role than previously thought.  Dancer or not, cutting edge research can help shine light on how to achieve the long, lean look of a dancer.

Plant Based Eating

Thankfully beautiful dancers come in all shapes and sizes.  However, many have a relatively low body fat percentage compared to the general public. A healthy body fat percentage isn’t just about looking good in tights, it also reduces risk for long-term diseases like heart disease.  Plant-based eaters typically have lower stored body fat, and dancers who are plant based eaters typically have well defined muscle tone1,3.

Some body fat is important for protecting organs, keeping us warm, and providing an energy source when needed.  The human body is amazingly adept at storing body fat, known as adipose tissue, when there is excess caloric intake over the body’s needs at that moment.  We all know what fatty marbling looks like in cuts of meat.   This can also happen in human muscle tissue and is called intramuscular fat (IMF). We can change the amount of IMF deposits by eating a plant-based diet.  A study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that plant based eaters have significantly lower amounts of IMF1.  Athletes who eat mostly plant based food choices have significantly lower body weight over their lifespan, and eating meat and cheese is associated with weight gain overtime2,3.  Eating plant based foods can be a richly rewarding and filling way to eat, not to mention less expensive.  For less than two dollars per serving try a bean and veggie chili with a sweet potato and kale, then see if you feel full.

Speaking of chili, spicy foods particularly from chili or hot peppers, may help burn more calories. A compound called capsaicin in food and in creams may reduce inflammation but now we think there might be potential for better weight management too. Sweet peppers have capsiates that promote thermogenesis, thus helping the body to burn more calories.  You would need to eat a lot of peppers to see an effect. However, including peppers in an overall diet rich in fruits and veggies may reduce inflammation and lower body fat over time.


Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar in fresh fruit and vegetables.  It can be extracted from plants and highly processed into a high calorie sweetener that has become ubiquitous in the food supply. Fructose is metabolised a little differently by the liver than the other types of sugars, sucrose or glucose.  Because of this, it is considered to be more easily converted into fat and stored as fat. Getting fructose from an actual piece of fruit is very different from getting it from processed high-fructose corn syrup.  The natural fruit has fiber, vitamins, phytonutrients, and is very high water content.  Fruit is healthy, low calorie and is an important food group for anyone trying to lose or maintain weight.   High-fructose corn syrup on the other hand, is found in many beverages, packaged foods, sweets, dressings, and sauces, and can negatively affect the hunger/satiety hormones that help us know when to stop eating.  High fructose intake can lead to consuming more calories with less satiety thus contributing to increased body fat percentage.

Glycemic Index

Achieving long, lean muscles means choosing the right foods to give energy while also burning fat.   Using the Glycemic Index (GI) can help make these choices. The GI is a numerical index used to describe how a carbohydrate is metabolised and its effect on blood glucose, insulin levels, and fat metabolism. The lower the GI score the better.  Examples of healthy low GI foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quinoa, oatmeal, beans, nuts, seeds, soy, milk, and yogurt.   In order to oxidise fat, the body needs some carbohydrate in the system.  Consuming low-GI carbs before exercise results in increased fat oxidation (fat burning) during exercise5 , and participants reported feeling fuller and more satisfied in a LGI trial.  High GI foods have been shown to contribute to overeating long-term in part because they affect areas of the brain that are responsible for reward, cravings, and hunger2.  Carbohydrate is the preferred source of fuel for any athletic activity.  It is a myth that carbs in general increase body fat.  Smart food choices help lower body fat and increase athletic performance.

Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD 
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at



1. Goff LM, Bell JD, So PW, Dornhorst A, Frost GS. Veganism and its relationship with insulin resistance and intramyocellular lipid. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2005;59(2):291-298.
2. Vergnaud AC, Norat T, Romaguera D, et al. Meat consumption and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC-PANACEA study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010.  doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28713.
3. Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.  Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Jun;27(6):728-34.
4. Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98:641-647.
5. E J Stevenson, NM Astbury, EJ Simpson, MA. Taylor,  IA Macdonald. Fat Oxidation during Exercise and Satiety during Recovery Are Increased following a Low-Glycemic Index Breakfast in Sedentary Women. J. Nutr. May 2009 139: 890-897

Photo(top): Kalani Hilliker. Photo by Chris Rielly.

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