Some years ago, I attended a workshop at New York Insight Meditation Center. It was led by a cheerful, highly articulate Buddhist monk who was visiting from the U.K. After two rounds of sitting meditation practice, he invited questions from participants. Most centered on various real-life dilemmas relating to work and relationships—and after responding to several questions, he offered us a piece of general advice that I have since found quite valuable.
When contemplating phenomena of any kind, it is useful to take a step back and ask ourselves the following:
-What is this thing for? What is its inherent nature?
-What are its potential benefits?
-What are its potential hazards?
I invite you to join me in applying these questions to a contemplation of food, specifically as it regards the needs of singers.
What is food for? What is its inherent nature?
-Food provides the body with the fuel necessary for survival and for meeting physical demands placed upon it.
-Food provides essential nutrients for health, growth, and fortifying the immune system.
-Food also provides sensual enjoyment.
What are its potential benefits?
-Physical energy, health, and pleasure.
What are its potential hazards?
-Improper and/or inadequate consumption of food can undermine health and cause pain and discomfort.
If we understand and respect the inherent nature of food, it is relatively easy to map out a regimen designed to provide ourselves with adequate fuel, nutrition, and even pleasure without undermining our health or causing pain. There are excellent free resources for learning about nutrition available online. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides dietary guidelines that it frequently updates based on the latest nutrition research, offering robust information for designing a healthy meal plan.
If our bodies respond to something we’ve eaten with poor health or discomfort, many other resources exist to identify the problem and make adjustments to our diet.
First-world culture, however, has made it astonishingly challenging to make dietary choices based only on our actual needs. The hazards are not few:
–Marketing. Restaurant chains and other large food corporations profit by selling as much of their product as they can, frequently offering as a single meal more calories than you’d need over the course of an entire day.
–Proliferation of processed foods. It’s cheaper and more expedient to eat highly processed packaged foods full of sodium, preservatives, and artificial flavoring than it is to buy and prepare fresh, nutrient-rich produce.
–Hyper-palatable foods. As a species, we have evolved into a highly functioning civilization enabling us to live more sedentary lives, but our instincts haven’t entirely caught up to the new reality—we still crave the large quantities of fat, carbs, and salt we once needed to be effective hunter-gatherers without heated homes. Most of us will instinctively reach for the cheese fries rather than the baked chicken breast.
–The diet industry. As we have succumbed to ubiquitous marketing, a dearth of nutrition education, and a vulnerability to hyper-palatable foods, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Magazine covers concurrently promote an ideal of thinness that is unachievable even for most healthy people. Thus there are countless corporations offering supplements and diet plans, many of which spread misinformation, make unrealistic promises, and trade on the despair of a population seeking an unattainable physical aesthetic.
–Short-term compensatory psychological gains of over- or under-eating. Eating disorders are difficult to treat. Sixty percent of people with eating disorders who receive treatment are thought to make a full recovery. Without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die.
It turns out that something that ought to be relatively easy has become extraordinarily difficult for the average human.
As a singer, however, you are fortunate to have stronger motivation for combating these difficulties than the average person does. You’re an athlete, and if you want to ensure peak performance, you must approach food with a highly pragmatic attitude. You cannot afford to fall prey to these hazards. My aim in writing this column is to encourage you to consider how to best fuel your lifestyle and your art—and to make choices that support them when faced with an overwhelming urge to prioritize aesthetics, momentary satiety, and the temporary psychological relief food can provide.
How Much Fuel Do You Need?
For each individual, there is a given number of calories that when consumed daily will fuel your activities and maintain your weight. That number depends upon your age, gender, level of activity, and basal metabolic rate (BMR). To determine this number accurately requires a specialized medical assessment, but there are calculators available online to get some idea of what your daily caloric needs might be.
The fuel you need is simply the fuel you need. If you do not consume adequate calories to fuel your activities effectively, you undermine your work and possibly slow down your metabolism—rather than lose weight, your body will figure out how to maintain your current weight with fewer calories and diminished activity. So while it’s true that in order to lose weight you must burn more calories than you consume, a more effective way to achieve a deficit is to do things that will increase your BMR (such as developing more lean muscle mass and improving cardiorespiratory function) while continuing to fuel your activities appropriately.
What Kind of Fuel Do You Need?
Specialized activities like athletic training and opera performance require adequate and well chosen fuel. Sports scientists have developed pre-training and post-training recovery nutrition protocols that vary depending on whether an athlete is preparing for an event that requires endurance, power, or a combination of both.
For example, the recommended percentage of the daily diet contributed by protein is greater for bodybuilders than for endurance athletes like marathon runners. The timing and composition of a pre-workout meal are likely to differ from those of a pre-game meal. Most professional athletes will engage in a variety of training sessions throughout a typical day, so the fuel and recovery requirements of each activity will determine the number and timing of their meals as well as overall caloric and nutrition needs.
To my knowledge, no study has yet been performed to determine the nutritional needs of singers, but it seems to me that the daily pace of a typical singer’s energy requirements most closely resembles that of an endurance athlete. Peak performance for endurance athletes depends upon the ability to store enough carbohydrates prior to an event and access those carbohydrate stores over the course of an event while remaining adequately hydrated. I surveyed a number of professional singers about their eating habits, and each arrived at a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and hydration that works well for them individually. They have also learned to time their meals to ensure they’ll have the energy they need when they need it, in many cases closely mirroring protocols for endurance athletes.
One question that remains for me, though, is the extent to which these singers’ dietary discoveries may have contributed to their success. They were inquisitive, disciplined, and fortunate enough to arrive at a regimen that works well for them without the kind of education and institutional support that athletes enjoy. A familiarity with the sports nutrition protocols for endurance athletes could be of great benefit for all singers.
Be a Full-Time Athlete
You may not have performances every day, but you are a singer every day. Eat to consistently fuel your activity level every day. Exercise to get and keep your instrument in shape and plan pre- and post-workout meals to optimize your performance. Devise a pre-performance routine that works well for your body. Assess your performances not only in terms of your musical artistry but also your energy level and physical functioning throughout, and make adjustments to your diet as needed.
There Are No Secrets
As I stated earlier, if we understand and respect the inherent nature of food, it is relatively easy to map out a regimen designed to provide ourselves with adequate fuel, nutrition, and even pleasure without undermining our health or causing pain. Allergies or health issues may require dietary adjustments, but food needs boil down to caloric intake and expenditure, basal metabolic rate, and achieving the nutritional balance required for the various types of exertion you engage in throughout the day. What is confusing and even frustrating in our culture is not any mystery surrounding nutrition but rather the ubiquitous media messages constantly exhorting us to consume things that exceed and subvert our dietary needs and the proliferation of other misleading messages telling us how to achieve an unrealistic body image.
There’s no escaping these messages. I continue to discover ways in which they unconsciously impact my choices, behavior, and self-image. If I’m just an average American eater, the result may be that I sometimes eat too much, feel bad about myself, eat too little for a while, and/or have my metabolism and energy level fluctuate—but I will still enjoy a relatively healthy and functional life.
But I’m not an average American eater. I’m a vocal athlete. My desire for optimal health and performance gives me leverage to drown out the media messages and claim for myself a better baseline of energy regulation and self-esteem.
I recall that when it was time for a lunch break at my NYI meditation workshop, some participants asked the monk whether he would like them to bring him something for lunch. He beamed like a little kid and responded, “A milkshake, please! They don’t know how to make decent milkshakes where I live!”
Food isn’t just for fuel. It can also be a source of tremendous pleasure, as even a monk who has settled on an extremely simple lifestyle can attest. Just sip that milkshake mindfully, pay attention to the feedback you get from your body regarding whether it’s being received well or not, and consider its nutritional content in the broader context of your health and fuel needs.