Dancers have heard the importance of good nutrition. Your body is your instrument, and it needs fuel – the premium kind – to work at its best potential. Here, Dance Informa offers five important tidbits on keeping your body healthy this new school year.
#1. It’s not all about fat or calories.
Quit counting grams of this or that. Your body doesn’t eat grams, it eats food. Food composition is much bigger than just fat, carbs, protein, calories or whatever the obsession de jour is. Consider the bigger picture with your food choices. What about considering that fruits and vegetables have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that improve recovery and decrease inflammation post-exercise? A fast food hamburger or chicken nuggets won’t do that. What about considering that sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, which is good for your skin and immune function? French fries won’t do that. What about considering that most high fructose corn syrup is derived from corn grown with the herbicide glyphosate? If you’re going to eat occasional sweets, maple syrup, honey and organic sugar aren’t. When you choose foods, think about nourishing your body instead of obsessing over calories.
#2. Vitamin D deficiency is a common problem.
Studies show that dancers are very frequently vitamin D deficient1,2. This key vitamin plays an important role in bone building and is especially important when dancers are growing and in the prevention of stress fractures1,2. It also acts as a hormone and plays a key role in keeping the immune system functioning optimally. Because dancers don’t get sunshine outside very often, many may need to supplement this vitamin. Needs vary widely, but I usually recommend 800-2000 IU of D3 daily. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about your unique needs.
#3. Carbs are not evil, just misunderstood.
Carbohydrates provide the primary source of energy for the body. Basically, the right kinds of carbohydrates eaten at the right times will undoubtedly improve performance. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural myth that carbs will make you fat. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get 55-60 percent of total calories from carbohydrates3. Carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, rice, quinoa, potatoes, peas, beans and legumes are excellent fuel to eat before dancers exercise, and eating carbohydrates post-exercise will replenish glycogen stores (stored energy in the muscles and liver).
Being on a carb-restricted or “low-carb”diet has been shown to decrease performance. “Training with limited carbohydrate availability impairs training intensity and duration”3. Obviously, dancers don’t need the types of carbohydrates from excess sugar or refined flour such as in doughnuts, cakes or syrupy drinks. Choose your carbs wisely, and you’ll notice a difference in class. “Higher intakes of carbohydrates are associated with better performance and perceptions of well-being”3. Occasional sweets are fine.
#4. Very few dancers really need to protein load or protein supplement.
As a dietitian who has been using cutting-edge sports nutrition software to run dietary analysis on hundreds of my clients over the years, I have almost never seen someone who is protein deficient when they are eating adequate calories regularly throughout the day. Most people are getting plenty of protein through a normal diet alone and don’t need to supplement protein in pills, powders, drinks or giant steak dinners4. I recommend that my dancer clients use protein strategically by eating it post-exercise and in regular intervals throughout the day. For example, a handful of nuts, a bowl of rolled oats with seeds, a nut butter sandwich, a soy milk smoothie, or a hard-boiled egg on a break after ballet class would provide between 7-15 grams. A lunch with quinoa salad, veggies and a chickpea patty wrap would provide another 12-20 grams. Cuban black bean soup, Tex-Mex beans and rice, or lentil soup and veggies as part of dinner, would be great sources of protein that don’t contribute to heart disease. Grains, vegetables, soy yogurts, tempeh, tofu and soy products also can contribute to total intake throughout the day.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get about 12-15 percent of total calories through protein. Dr. Garth Davis is a medical doctor specializing in obesity and nutrition. He states, “Excess protein is one of the biggest factors behind the obesity epidemic”4. Get enough, but don’t go overboard. If dancers do need to supplement protein in addition to food in the diet, I recommend pea or hemp protein powders mixed with almond milk.
#5. Listen to your body; you know it better than anyone.
If you’re feeling sluggish, tired or getting frequently injured, your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it. You are your own person with your own unique needs. Don’t worry about what your friend, or mom or dance teacher is eating (or not eating). Stop comparing yourself to others who likely have vastly different needs, metabolic rates and biochemistry than you do. Fueling your body for this incredibly athletic art form is critical. Listen to your body, honor it, respect it, and feed it what it needs. If you’re not sure what it needs, get help from a qualified registered dietitian. Real dancers eat.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Dancer Nutrition.
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
- Constantini NW, et al. High prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in athletes and dancers. Clin J Sport Med. 2010 Sep;20(5):368-71. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e3181f207f2.
- Wolman R, et al. Vitamin D status in professional ballet dancers: winter vs. summer. J Sci Med Sport. 2013 Sep;16(5):388-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2012.12.010. Epub 2013 Feb 4.
- Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine. 2016 http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(15)01802-X/pdf
- Davis G. Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it. Harper Collins 2015.