To perform at peak levels, dancers need to be particularly mindful of how they fuel their bodies. They need to be sure they get not just enough food, but the nutrients required to build strong bones and muscles, a sturdy immune system and supple joints. When you're always on the move, it's easy to miss out on vital nutrients. Although dietary supplements may seem like an ideal shortcut to better nutrition, experts advise that they should never be considered as a replacement for healthy, whole foods. However, if chosen carefully, they may fill in nutritional gaps when combined with a balanced diet.
We spoke with several nutritionists about supplements and dancers' dietary needs. They shared their advice about essential nutrients and where to find them.
Their number-one piece of advice was food first. Eating nutrient-rich whole foods is the surest way to fuel a healthy body. "Nature's really smart. It packages a lot of vitamins and minerals in ways that our body best absorbs them," says registered dietitian-nutritionist Rachel Fine. Several factors contribute to a nutrient's bioavailability—broadly, how much will be absorbed and used by the body—including the nutrient's chemical form, interaction between nutrients and how the food was processed and prepared before consumption.
Fine stresses the importance of well-rounded meals with a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, supported by supplements when necessary. She often recommends dancers take calcium and vitamin D supplements, which help with developing bone mass. She also suggests taking a multivitamin, which can help round out a healthy diet.
More Than Enough
That said, when taking supplements, there are some considerations. Many supplements contain well over the daily-required amount of a nutrient. Vitamin C, for example, can come at a dose of 500 mg or 1,000 mg in a supplement, while an orange offers around 70 mg. (The recommended daily intake for a female teenager is 65 mg.) Research suggests your body will not absorb and use all of the vitamin from a supplement. Vitamins found naturally in food are more readily absorbed because of the additional nutrients and chemicals in the food interacting with them.
Some researchers have raised concerns about the risks of toxicity when consuming too much of a given vitamin, which is something to consider when taking supplements. Vitamin D toxicity (which takes months of megadoses to build up—50,000 IUs daily) can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, weakness, frequent urination and possible kidney problems. Too much calcium may contribute to kidney stones in susceptible individuals and soft-tissue calcifications. DT
Knowledge Is Power—and Potency
You want supplements that contain what they say they do, and don't have extra, unknown ingredients. That doesn't mean you need to buy pricey brands. An expensive or organic label does not mean you can trust the ingredients any more than a generic brand. Instead, choose products that have been tested and approved by independent labs, like the following. Look for their labels on bottles or visit the company websites for a list of verified products.
• The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP)
• NSF International has a regular certification for supplements and a special one for sports products.
• ConsumerLab.com randomly tests supplements and reports their findings. They also keep a list of health warnings and recalls.
• Labdoor offers lists that rank brands of different supplements and explains what tests they conduct to determine quality.
There are certain nutrients a dancer should not go without. Here's where to find them and how much you should be getting.
CALCIUM is essential to bone density, especially for young dancers, who develop bone mass into their late teens and early 20s. "You're putting physical pressure on your bones," says dietitian-nutritionist Rachel Fine, who often recommends calcium supplements to dancers. "You want to make sure you're building strong bones and not risking one of the most common injuries for dancers: stress fractures." In food, calcium is available in dairy products, nuts, leafy greens and fish. Children (age 9 and up) and teens need 1,300 mg daily, and 1,000 mg for adults 19 to 50 (1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70). When taking a calcium supplement, it's best to take it with food, since the most commonly available form, calcium carbonate, relies on stomach acid for absorption.
VITAMIN D also contributes to bone health and is a commonly recommended supplement, since it's hard to get enough of it from food alone. Vitamin D is available in fatty fish like wild-caught mackerel, salmon and tuna, as well as in fortified milk and orange juice. And, of course, sunlight. (Fifteen minutes of sun exposure a day goes a long way.) Vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means including healthy fats in meals is a must for maximum absorption. A supplement can help dancers reach their daily requirements: 400 to 800 IUs daily.
Females need to be particularly aware of IRON, because many young women have iron deficiency or anemia. The recommended daily allowance for premenopausal women is 18 mg, 33 mg if they are vegetarians. This is because there are two types of iron: heme, from meat, and nonheme, from plants and iron-fortified foods. Heme iron is more bioavailable than nonheme, and actually aids in the absorption of nonheme iron. Vegetarians need to make up for that disadvantage by consuming significantly more iron to ensure their bodies absorb enough. (Men and postmenopausal women require just 8 mg, 14 mg for vegetarians.) Iron is found in red meat, dark leafy greens, oatmeal, black beans and lentils. To increase absorption, add a vitamin C source, like citrus fruit, to a meal.
VITAMIN C ranks high on the list of nutrients for dancers because of its benefits for joint health. It is also essential for a functional immune system. You can take a supplement, but really there's no excuse for not getting enough vitamin C, since it's in many fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, red and green bell peppers and cooked broccoli. Keep in mind, too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea.
Other beneficial nutrients for dancers include omega 3s, found in fatty fish, vegetable oils, leafy greens and nuts; phosphorus, from meat and milk; magnesium, found in rich supply in almonds and spinach; vitamin K, from spinach, broccoli and lettuce, as well as vegetable oils; and probiotics, found in yogurt with active cultures. Each is also available as a supplement.
If a dancer is unsure whether she's getting enough of a given nutrient, the website for the National Institutes of Health lists vitamin and nutrient content for lots of foods, and Fine recommends the site The World's Healthiest Foods, as well.
The following experts contributed to this article:
Rachel Fine, registered dietitian-nutritionist and founder of To the Pointe Nutrition
Dr. Susan Kleiner, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Seattle
Marie Scioscia, registered dietitian-nutritionist for The Ailey School
Heidi Skolnik, certified nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Conditioning
Andrea Marks is a freelance writer in New York City and former assistant editor of Dance Teacher.