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How a Swiss-Japanese nutritionist influences the ballet world

Interview with Natsume Wegmann

Eating well and living a healthy lifestyle is a top priority for most people but finding the time to cook fresh, healthy meals can be difficult. And if you're a professional dancer with evening rehearsals and performances every week, then it can be an even bigger challenge. 

Interview By Conor Shilling, photoGraphed by patrizio di renzo, feb 21, 2023

Enter Natsume Wegmann, a Swiss-Japanese nutritionist who's helping ballet dancers in Zürich to improve their diets and maximise their energy levels. Through a partnership with celebrated soloist Michelle Willems, Natsume has launched a series of events to help educate young dancers and their families about the benefits of healthy eating. We recently spoke to her to find out about why dancers need more nutrition support, the benefits of eating Japanese, plus her top five favourite foods...

How did you become a nutrition expert?

I first got a qualification as a secretary of medicine in Switzerland. I worked at a clinic and hospital for eight years. It was a good job but everything was always the same, it was very routinised. I later found out that there were some departments for nutrition support at the clinic. This was really interesting to me as I’m Japanese and we have a very good food culture. So I went back to school for three years and got a qualification as a nutritionist. Then I got my EMR title and in July 2020 I started my own nutrition practice.

They needed mental support, and it was also an important time for them to grow up. Stress can affect their skin and hormonal balance. I really wanted to support them.

Natsume Wegmann, Nutritionist

You work with ballet dancers – how did this start?

It’s quite a long story… I have friends who have danced professionally with the Zürich ballet company, I also dance ballet. I knew being a professional dancer is a very beautiful job but also very hard. Dancers need to have stamina and they really have to care for not only the body but also the soul. I started by running nutrition workshops for ballet and yoga. Some of the ballet students joined my workshops and they told me their stories. For example, they came from abroad, they were staying in Switzerland in student housing and were expected to look after everything, including eating.

So I started thinking I could support them and help to improve their eating habits. They were still very young, in their late teens or twenties, and seemed to have a hard time living in an unfamiliar foreign country, cooking their own meals and living on their own. They needed mental support, and it was also an important time for them to grow up. Stress can affect their skin and hormonal balance. I really wanted to support them. I also knew two or three great musicians from the opera house and so I went there very often. One day, a great violinist from the opera house, Xiaoming Wang, invited me to a special seat “Maestro Loge”. I saw a performance by Michelle Willems, one of the most popular ballerinas in Zürich, and I was moved, I felt her energy. I saw her performance very close up. I found myself naturally following her with my eyes. She was different. Michelle danced a beautiful solo with his wonderful violin solo. I’m still grateful that I was able to be a part of the moment when two friends crossed talents in such way. So I contacted Michelle and she responded very quickly. She was interested in my job, in nutrition and healthy lifestyle. 

Then we met up to have tea. The weather was beautiful and sparkling. We still remember that day very well. We talked about not only nutrition but also each other and it was really nice. I told her I really wanted to help young dancers and students as a nutritionist. Professional dancers in the Zürich company don’t have a nutritionist. They have to manage all their life themselves, which isn’t so easy. Then I said I really wanted to work together with schools and parents for young dancers. Michelle thought it was a very good idea, so we organised an event together which some of my customers sponsored.

It was a big success and we got lots of attention from other companies, schools, and parents, as well as the Ballet Shop Zürich and other professional dancers. Ballet Shop Zürich has been, and continues to be, my business partner since the event. Early on, they shared with me the importance of dietary support for dancers. So now, step-by-step, people are working together to improve the nutrition of the dancers.

I’ve received offers from the former principal of the ballet in Zürich, choreographer Filipe Portugal, and from pilatesbarrelovers to collaborate and I’m planning to do so. I’m also planning another event with Michelle and Stradivari Quartett this year.

How do you support ballet dancers, and are they generally healthy eaters?

The first step is counselling. I normally take about one hour to listen to them about their lifestyle, which can be very difficult as, for example, they can have rehearsals at 10 o'clock in the evening. I talk to them about how they live at the moment, about their past illness or injuries, their allergies, or what they don’t want to have. I try to get lots of detail. This isn’t possible without building a relationship or trust – they must tell me everything. After this point, they can make some changes and I can support them. We can make a plan, normally I cook for them. As not all people are the same, I create a menu that’s tailored to each individual.

Can professional dancers cover everything they need with meals, or do they need supplements?

It depends on the individual. For example, some dancers already take protein shakes or a supplement. My philosophy is that they should have good nutrition from fresh food and cooking. When I explain this, often they stop taking supplements, but I never say that they should stop. I think they realise there are recipes they can take lots of good nutrition from. For ballerinas, it’s not so common to take supplements. Male dancers are more likely to have a protein shake before or after training - they tell me how much and how often they take them. Some ballerinas become mothers in the future, because they won’t be dancers forever, so at the same time I’m showing them the foundation of good eating habits throughout their lives.

In your experience, do ballet dancers have a good knowledge of healthy food and lifestyle?

It really depends on age. Young dancers don’t often have good knowledge but dancers aged between 25 and 30, they know the mechanics of their body and can manage it well. Young dancers need not only support from someone like me, but support from the school or their parents. That’s why I also run seminars and I hope that the parents and families of dancers learn more about nutrition.

In Japan we normally learn about nutrition from a young age – schools and parents work together. In Switzerland, it’s not like that.

Natsume Wegmann, Nutritionist

Do ballet dancers get enough support with their diet - what could be changed to support young dancers more?

For example, in Japan we normally learn about nutrition from a young age - schools and parents work together. In Switzerland, it’s not like that. We should work together. Many children today eat a lot of junk food and that’s not a problem just for dancers, it’s a problem for everyone. I just hope there’s an improvement – the city, the schools, the teachers, they should have the same opinion to work together. I have already spoken with the assistant to the Mayor of Zurich about this at City Hall. I’m looking forward to future developments.

What are the challenges of working with professional dancers?

I really enjoy it, that’s the main driver. I feel so grateful to have such a job and to work together with them and be able to support their beautiful performances. It’s really cool. My knowledge as a nutrition professional and my interest in the arts means everything is perfect. I really love this job!

Do you have any recommendations for how people with limited time (like dancers) can eat healthily?

My company offers takeaways and also a delivery service. Normally my customers want to achieve something like losing weight, so depending on their requests, I make them an individual menu and then we cook all their lunches and dinners for the week. About 98% of my customers are women, a lot of them are career women, in very senior positions. They’re very busy, they have no time to cook but they also want to have a healthy lifestyle. That’s why they order food from me, they can get their lunches and dinners delivered, it’s very easy. I’m happy to support them so they can do the work they love as much as they want and benefit from my knowledge of nutrition and food. I love my job so much.

What is a healthy meal for you?

Something that contains seasonal, regional and fresh bio products.

Japanese food is famous for being very healthy. People can enjoy it visually, as well as the smell and the taste.

Natsume Wegmann, Nutritionist

In your opinion, is it better to have 3 main meals or 5-6 smaller meals per day?

It’s very much down to the individual. For example, I can’t eat so much at one time. Everyone has a minimum they have to eat for their energy levels. That’s why three good-size meals or five to six smaller meals can be OK.

Alongside food, what else is important to achieve a healthy lifestyle?

It has a lot to do with feelings and psychology too. For example, a professional dancer told me they had a very, very hard day and food is the highlight of their day. That’s why they don’t just want to eat a pizza or something like that. Alongside food, it’s important for them to feel happy. They can do this by being calm and focusing on their inner energy with things like yoga or meditation. And of course, sleep is also very, very important. I tell them: “Take care of yourself. Praise yourself for your hard work today. You are working hard toward your dreams, and that alone makes you a very valuable and wonderful person. Leave the dietary and nutritional support to me, I want you to make your dreams come true. I will do my best to support you.”

What are the benefits of Japanese foods compared to European ones?

Japanese food is famous for being very healthy. People can enjoy it visually, as well as the smell and the taste. For example, miso soup, fermented food, and tofu are famous for being healthy and seen as superfoods. The preparation method for Japanese food is also very different. It involves steaming, simmering, baking, pickling, straining and dressing. Due to our preparation, we can cook without sauce, which traditionally has more calories. Our food has a natural taste, that’s why our food culture is so popular all over the world. In Japan, we can create harmony with food!

What is your favourite Japanese meal/dish?

I love soba noodles with Kamonannbann and Saba no Misoni (mackerel with miso sauce). I also like a special kind of sushi with tuna fish called toro, with avocado spring roll and Japanese tea.

And what is your favourite non-Japanese meal/dish?

I love truffle and foie gras. Also beef bourguignon and green tomato jam, which I normally get in Paris. At home, I love to cook French food. For my business, I cook Japanese food.

If you could only eat 5 different foodstuffs for the rest of your life, which 5 would they be?

It’s a very difficult but funny question! I would choose truffle, soba noodles, Japanese tea, sushi with vegetables and toro, and the French cake mille feuille.

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