Do dancers need extra protein? Do they need to use powders, drinks, shakes or amino acid supplements or should they just eat more? Sadly, the misguided “low-carb” fad continues to be a contributing factor in 70% of Americans being overweight or obese. In light of current research suggesting a link between meat and dairy and risk for long-term diseases…what should you think?
Yes, dancers have slightly higher protein needs than the average non-athletic person, particularly if they are still growing adolescents. However, it is important that we think beyond this incorrect idea that most of our food should be protein and that we should avoid carbohydrates. Adequate protein is important, but too much can be harmful. Everyone is a little different, but guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) are that 12-15% of all the calories you eat throughout a whole day should be comprised of protein which are strings of amino acids joined together like a train with many cars.
These long proteins (trains) get broken down into smaller parts during cooking and digestion so that all the little amino acids (train cars) can then be rejoined together in any combination that the body needs to build new tissue or for other biological processes. Protein containing foods like beans, seeds, soy, quinoa and animal meats contain different combinations of these amino acids, and you don’t have to eat animal meat to get enough protein. Getting adequate protein from plant- based sources has been shown to lower disease risk.
Excess protein…what’s the problem with eating too much?
- Excess protein (over and above the body’s needs) is still excess calories, and any calories not needed can be stored as body fat. Excess protein doesn’t magically create muscle.
- The body prefers not to use protein as fuel or energy. The body wants to spare valuable protein for muscle building, making hormones, enzymes, controlling fluid balance, etc.
- Excess protein means excess nitrogen, a part of the protein structure that must be removed and then eliminated. This can be hard on the kidneys. More importantly water gets excreted in this process and can increase risk for dehydration.
- High protein diets can lead to more calcium being lost from the bones, a big problem for dancers who are at higher than average risk for stress fractures. Protein overload = weaker bones.
- Excess animal protein has been shown to increase risk for heart disease and certain cancers.
Is Soy safe?
Yes. Soy contains protein, calcium, and phytonutrients that have been shown to be cancer protective. Don’t believe the Internet myths. Soy does not contain estrogen and does not act like a hormone in the body. Stick to mostly unprocessed soy and always choose organic.
Individual Protein Needs
Everyone’s needs are different. But if someone needs roughly 2000 calories then 240-300 of those calories should come from protein or about 60-75g (this example is not intended to be a range for everyone). The average person needs between 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, dancers need more but not too much more. Typically 1.2-1.4 grams per kilogram of protein is adequate depending on the dancer, their age, and energy needs. Take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 to get kilograms, then multiply by 1.2-1.4. Talk to a dietitian for a more individualized assessment.
Here is an example:
115 lb female dancer needs approximately 60-78g per day.
170 lb male dancer needs approximately 90-108 g per day.
Most people who eat a balanced diet can meet their protein needs through food alone. Supplemental protein is expensive and usually unnecessary. In general, people in the US get far more protein than they need, including athletes. It is a myth that you need to load up on protein or that it should form the bulk of your food intake. Good complex carbs are actually far more important to working athletes.
The body is best able to utilize protein when eaten in moderate doses of 7-20 grams regularly spaced through the day. Eat smaller more frequent meals and snacks, aim for eating every 3 hours.
Real Food Examples of Protein Content:
Do I really need protein powder?
For most healthy people, the answer is no. Protein through food alone is usually more than enough even for body builders, even for vegetarians and vegans. If supplementation is necessary, hemp and pea protein powders are my preferred sources and try to keep it under 20 grams at a time. Whey protein is from cow’s milk/ dairy and can be highly allergenic or problematic for many people. Some nutrition researchers have expressed concern about casein (the other protein found in cow’s milk), so I am not comfortable recommending whey or casein to clients especially when supplemental protein is rarely necessary anyway.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org