To perform at their best, dancers need to be well-fuelled (i.e. they need to eat the right balance of carbohydrate, fat, protein, micronutrients, and fluids).
An easy way to estimate how many calories or kilojoules a professional dancer requires during heavy training is
- Females 45–50 calories (190–210kj) per kilogram of body weight
- Males 50–55 calories (210–230kj) per kilogram of body weight.
For a more accurate assessment, dancers should consult a dietitian.
A low caloric intake will not only compromise energy availability, it may also lead to an under-ingestion of many micronutrients that could affect performance, growth and health. After calculating the number of calories needed, the next step is to estimate the necessary amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein—the building blocks of the diets.
A dancer's diet should consist of about 55–60% carbohydrate, 12–15% protein and 20–30% fat. As carbohydrate is the major energy source for muscles, during particularly heavy training and rehearsing, the amount of carbohydrate should be increased to about 65%. Ingested carbohydrate is broken down into simple sugars (glucose) in the digestive tract then stored in muscle as glycogen, the primary fuel for energy production. If you do not eat enough carbohydrate your ability to perform will be compomised because of low levels of glycogen in the muscles. You may feel more fatigued during classes and rehearsals.
The best energy foods are complex carbohydrate (cereal, bread, pasta, rice) rather than simple sugars, because a complex carbohydrate is full of nutrients, while simple carbs are not. The estimated carbohydrate need is 6–10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. In addition to meals, a carbohydrate snack about 1–2 hours prior to hard work (e.g. a bread roll or an energy bar—preferably one that does not list sugar as the main ingredient) will increase glucose levels in the circulation and ‘top-up' muscle glycogen stores.
During long rehearsals it is also important to maintain circulating levels of glucose to prevent fatigue.
After a period of dancing, the muscles require an adequate supply of carbohydrate to replenish the muscle glycogen stores. The fastest rate of glycogen resynthesis occurs in the two hours immediately after exercise, so it is important to eat some carbohydrate during this time to refill muscle stores and be ready for the next activity.
Why do we need fat?
- to provide structure for cell membranes
- it forms the insulating layer around nerves
- it provides the base of many hormones
- for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins
- for muscle fuel
The estimated amount of fat needed is about 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. Because ingestion of high amounts of saturated fats is associated with chronic disease, the recommended amount of saturated fat in the diet should be less than 10%.
Muscle and adipose (fat) tissue store fat in the form of triglycerides. During exercise, triglycerides are broken down into fatty acids, which the body converts to energy. Fatty acids are an energy source for muscles for endurance activities or long rehearsals where the body is continuously exercising for over 20 minutes at a time. A diet too low in fat can have serious health consequences and ultimately can impair performance.
Adequate protein ingestion is essential for all working athletes and dancers. Even if you are not wanting to build muscle, protein is needed to repair the breakdown of muscle fibres that are stressed by constant use. Protein is also used by the body as fuel, and it is important for synthesising the many enzymes necessary for metabolism. The estimated protein need is 1.4–1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
For non-vegetarians, chicken or turkey without the skin are excellent low-fat protein sources. For vegetarians, tofu, seitan (wheat gluten) and mixtures of beans and rice are good protein choices. Protein powders are not necessary, even for male dancers, if they are following these recommendations. If a protein supplement is warranted, the best choice is milk powder. The high tech and expensive protein supplements on the market are not any better than simple dry milk.
Vitamins and minerals comprise the micronutrients in the diet. Water-soluble vitamins are the B vitamins and vitamin C. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble. The B vitamins play important roles in energy production (especially thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B) and in red blood cell formation (folic acid and vitamin B12).
Deficiency of these vitamins can impair performance. Vitamins A (beta carotene), C and E function as antioxidants that are necessary for the repair of over-stressed muscles and are needed to help muscles recover from strenuous activity. Vitamin D is important in bone formation.
We need over 100mg/day of the macrominerals which are calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, but only calcium will be mentioned here because of its importance for dancers. Calcium is vital for healthy, strong bones. It is only during the first 2 – 3 decades of life that bone mass is developed so it is essential to eat adequate calcium during these years. Low bone mass and low calcium intake are also associated with increased risk of stress fractures. 1
We need under 100mg/day of the microminerals (or trace minerals) of which there are nine, but iron and zinc are the ones that dancers are most inclined to be deficient in. Iron is needed to carry oxygen in the blood because it forms part of the haemoglobin molecule. Oxygen is used for the production of energy in muscle cells. Dietary iron is of two types: the heme, found in meat, and non-heme, less absorbable type found in plants.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, so eating a source of vitamin C (such as capsicums, strawberries or oranges) along with iron-rich food is a good idea. Dancers should include some lean red meat in their diet for an adequate supply of iron. Red meat is also a good source of zinc, which is a component of several enzymes important in energy production and plays a role in red blood cell production. If you are vegetarian, then you should eat plenty of iron-rich whole grains.
Dancers should be cautious about taking vitamin and mineral supplements because supplements containing only selected micronutrients can do more harm than good. Excessive amounts can interfere with the absorption of another and megadoses of some vitamins and minerals can be toxic. 2 Getting micronutrients from fresh food, which generally consists of numerous health-giving phytochemicals, is far preferable.
Ideally, dancers should have two serves of fresh fruit and at least five serves of vegetables daily, plus whole grains, dairy products and lean red meat. Because not all vitamins or minerals occur in all foods, it is recommended that you eat a wide variety of foods. A calorie restricted or monotonous diet could lead to a deficiency in some vitamins and could sgnificanlty impair the ability to work and recover.
Exercise increases heat production by muscles. Cooling the body depends on evaporation of sweat from the skin. Sweat losses during a hard class or long rehearsal can be substantial—up to two litres per hour. Fluid loss results in dehydration that can impair performance and mental function, making it difficult to quickly pick up complicated choreographic combinations and execute them.
A cup (250 ml) of fluid every 15 minutes is recommended. Whenever there is a break in class or rehearsal the dancer should have ready access to fluid and should be encouraged to drink because the thirst mechanism does not keep up with the body's need for fluid. A water bottle or sport drink should be part of a dancer's ‘gear’ and, if possible, dancers should be able to have a drink bottle in the studio or theatre. Following class and rehearsal, dancers should continue to increase fluid consumption for the next few hours. Avoid carbonated drinks and large quantities of fruit juice.
A simple way to monitor hydration is to check urine color: clear to light yellow is hydrated; yellow to dark yellow means dehydrated. (Note: Vitamin B supplements will result in yellow urine and make this dehydration test inaccurate.)
All dancers need to ingest sufficient energy to meet the demands of training and performing. Consuming the right amounts and types of food and fluid will provide the body with the ‘high performance fuel’ necessary to achieve optimal training benefits and peak performance.
- Dancers Diet and Exercise by Ashley Lucas
- IADMS Resource papers
- Australian Sports Commission nutrition factsheets
- Health & Lifestyle video by The Australian Ballet School
Priscilla Clarkson, PhD under the auspices of the Education Committee of IADMS. Special thanks to Elizabeth Snell.
© 2003–2005 International Association for Dance Medicine and Science