Dancer Nutrition: Tips to Train and Perform at Your Best
It is important dancers are equipped with knowledge on the best nutrition plan to support their training and performance needs. Let’s take a look at key nutrients dancers should include in their sports nutrition meal plan. Then we will look at specific nutrition strategies to fuel dancers before, during, and after dance classes and performances.
Plan Ahead to Meet Your Dance Nutrition Needs
With busy dance class and performance schedules, it is important dancers take time to plan ahead to meet their nutrition needs. Having the right foods available at the right time to support your activity is a key sports nutrition principle. Consider taking time on the weekend to meal prep for the upcoming week.
Dancer Nutrition: Carbohydrates for Energy
When discussing nutrition for dancers, carbohydrates should be at the foundation of your meal plan. Carbohydrates provide the body with the optimal source of energy to train and perform at your best. Dancers can get carbohydrates in their body from a variety of food groups, including:
- Grains – Bread, pasta, rice, oatmeal, cereal
- Starchy vegetables – Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn, peas, beans, legumes
- Fruit – Fresh, frozen, dried, canned
- Dairy – Milk and yogurt
In addition to providing energy, whole grain carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes also contain fiber. Fiber is an important part of a well-balanced diet and is associated with many health benefits.
Importance of Protein for Dancers
Protein is an important nutrient for dancers, as it supports the building and maintenance of lean muscle mass. Protein also has many other important functions in the body including: making enzymes and hormones that regulate body processes, producing antibodies that support immune health, transporting oxygen, and supporting cell repair.
When it comes to protein, dancers should aim to spread their protein intake throughout the day with several meals and snacks. It is recommended for individuals to eat ~0.25 grams of protein per kg of body weight at each eating occasion1. In general, I encourage dancers to aim to enjoy between 20-30 grams of protein with their meals and snacks.
Sources of Lean Protein
There are a variety of ways dancers can enjoy protein throughout the day. Here are several ideas:
- Greek yogurt
- High-protein milk
- Low-fat cheese, cheese sticks, cottage cheese
- Poultry, seafood, pork, lean red meat
- Deli meat – Turkey, chicken, roast beef, ham
- Tuna and salmon canned in water
Plant-Based Sources of Protein
Dancers who are following a vegetarian or vegan diet can still meet their protein needs through food sources, such as beans, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds. However, careful planning of plant-based meals is important to ensure dancers consume adequate protein and essential nutrients in their overall sports nutrition meal plan.
Here are several ideas for plant-based proteins to include in your sports nutrition meal plan.
- Soy protein – Edamame, tofu, tempeh
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and nut butters
For additional plant-based snack ideas, check out my blog: High-Protein Vegan Snacks for Athletes.
Dancer Nutrition: Choose Healthy Fats
Healthy, unsaturated fats are an important part of a sports nutrition meal plan for dancers. Dietary fats have many essential roles in the body. Fat is necessary for the absorption, transportation, and storage of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K). Fat also helps provide protection for our internal organs.
Sources of healthy, unsaturated fats dancers can include in their sports nutrition meal plan include:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Olives and olive oil
- Cold-water fatty fish
- Liquid, plant-based oils: Canola, sesame, safflower, peanut
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be essential fatty acids because the body cannot produce them itself. These fatty acids have many important roles, such as supporting optimal brain health, cardiovascular function, and working to help reduce inflammation in the body.
Cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Dancers can benefit from including several servings of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids in their meal plan throughout the week.
Hydration for Dancers
Hydration is important for dancers to support both health and optimal performance. Dehydration can negatively impact performance and increases the risk of developing a heat illness2. To help meet your hydration needs, consider carrying a refillable water bottle with you to sip on throughout the day. Prior to the start of your dance class, refill the water bottle so it is ready for the workout session.
Dancer Nutrition Strategies
Now let’s take a look at specific nutrition strategies to fuel dancers before, during, and after dance classes and performances.
Planning Your Pre-Dance Meal
When determining what to eat before your dance class or performance, the timing of the meal matters. In general, the less time you have prior to the start of the activity, the less food you will want to eat with your pre-workout meal. When possible, schedule your pre-workout meal to be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the exercise session.
What Should Dancers Include in their Pre-Workout Meal?
Your pre-workout meal should include a good source of carbohydrates, a moderate amount of protein, and be low in saturated fat. With the meal, aim to drink ~2 cups of fluid to help ensure you start your dance session in an optimally hydrated state.
Pre-workout meal ideas for dancers include:
- Oatmeal with berries and walnuts, banana, low-fat milk
- Bagel with sliced avocado, hard-boiled eggs, 100% fruit juice
- Pasta with grilled chicken, vegetables, and marinara sauce, breadstick, water
- Turkey sub sandwich, pretzels, apple slices, sports drink
Eating your pre-dance meal several hours before your dance session allows time for your body to digest the meal prior to activity. It also allows time to go to the restroom before the workout if needed.
If you have less time before the workout (1-2 hours), focus on consuming carbohydrate-rich snacks for energy. Eating foods that are high in fat, fiber, and/or protein too close to the competition may cause GI distress during the activity3. Dancers should continue hydrating in the hour leading up to activity, aiming to drink around 8 oz of fluid during this time period.
Dancer Nutrition: Afterschool Dance Classes
If you are planning to head straight to dance class from school, make sure you pack afterschool snacks. Prior to dance, it is best to focus on high-carbohydrate snacks which provide your body with the energy needed to train at your best. Easy snack ideas include:
- Fresh and dried fruit
- Applesauce squeeze packs
- Granola bars, fig bars, breakfast bars
- Mini bagels, dry breakfast cereal
- Pretzels, pita chips, animal crackers, graham crackers
Dancers can enjoy these same high-carbohydrate snacks when they have breaks between dance classes. Remember, as you exercise, your body uses your carbohydrate stores for energy. Consuming carbohydrates, either from a snack or a sports drink, can help supplement your body’s stores1. The carbohydrates you consume during the break can provide valuable energy for your next dance class.
Dancer Nutrition: Hydration During Dance Classes and Performances
During dance, you sweat in order to remove heat from your body. It is important to recognize that when you sweat, you lose both fluid and electrolytes. The main electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium. Thus, when focusing on staying hydrated, it is important to consume both fluid and sodium.
Individuals vary greatly in the amount of sweat lost during activity. However, as a general rule, dancers should aim to drink ~3-8 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes of activity4. Drinking a big gulp of water or sports drink is equivalent to approximately 1 ounce of fluid. Therefore, dancers should aim to drink several big gulps from their water bottle during each break.
When participating in multiple classes throughout the day, a sports drink can help dancers with replacing fluids and electrolytes. In addition, the carbohydrates contained within the sports drink can provide you with energy to continue training or performing at your best.
Recovery Nutrition for Dancers
When participating in a dance intensive involving multiple days of classes and training, it is important to make recovery nutrition a priority. The three goals of recovery nutrition for dancers are to consume the following:
- Fluid and electrolytes – rehydrate to replace sweat losses
- Carbohydrates – refill the energy (carbohydrate) stores used during the activity
- Protein – build and repair lean muscle mass
Consider packing snacks in your dance bag you can enjoy at the end of the day. This is particularly important if your next meal will not be for several hours.
Example snacks may include:
- Low-fat chocolate milk and granola bars
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a banana
- Trail mix made with dry cereal, pretzels, dried fruit, nuts and a sports drink
- Greek yogurt, berries, and granola
- Fruit smoothie
Aim to follow your recovery nutrition snack with a well-balanced dinner containing carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and fluids.
Ideas for post-dance meals include:
- Burrito bowl with rice, chicken, black beans, corn salsa, guacamole and a sports drink
- Grilled salmon, sweet potato, steamed broccoli, dinner rolls, and 100% fruit juice
- Pasta with lean meat sauce, salad, breadsticks, low-fat milk
In addition to nutrition, dancers should focus on getting quality sleep to support their recovery needs. During sleep the body heals and repairs, which is essential for muscle growth and recovery from exercise sessions. Even with busy dance and school schedules, it is important for dancers to make sleep a priority.
Dancer Nutrition: Fueled for Performance
Similar to practicing your dance choreography, take time to practice your nutrition strategies prior to a dance performance. Each dancer is unique; thus, it is important to figure out what type of foods and beverages help you perform at your best.
Remember to make recovery nutrition a priority, especially during periods when you have multiple performances close together. Going into your performances with a well-practiced sports nutrition plan can provide you with confidence that you are fueled to perform at your best.
Supporting the Nutrition Needs of Dancers
Elite dancers often expend a high number of calories through performance rehearsals, dance classes, conditioning, daily activities, and energy needed for normal health, growth, and development. When daily caloric expenditure from these activities exceeds dietary intake of calories from foods and beverages an imbalance occurs. We refer to this imbalance of calories as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)5.
What is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
RED-S is associated with a syndrome of concerns having health impacts throughout the body. Low energy availability can negatively impact bone health, menstrual function, immune health, cardiovascular function, protein synthesis, metabolic rate, and GI function. In addition, it can disrupt normal growth and development and have negative impacts on psychological health5.
Dance performance may also be impacted by the caloric imbalance – resulting in decreased muscle strength, endurance performance, and response to training. In addition, dancers with low energy availability are at an increased risk for injury and illness5. It is important for dancers to ensure they have an adequate intake of calories to support their health, daily activity, and sports performance needs.
Disordered Eating in Dancers
It is important to note that in some situations, disordered eating patterns are also contributing to the calorie imbalance. Disordered eating behaviors exist on a continuum ranging from occasional unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors to clinically diagnosed eating disorders3.
Dancers anywhere along the continuum displaying disordered eating behaviors can benefit from meeting with a sports dietitian nutritionist. A sports dietitian is a key part of the treatment team, working alongside a mental health professional to address the specific health and nutrition concerns of the athlete.
Ready to Dance!
You are now set with a variety of ideas to help you meet your nutrition needs as a dancer. Remember to plan ahead and use the dancer nutrition strategies shared to help you train and perform at your best.
For additional sports nutrition tips, check out my blog: 9 Essential Items for an Athlete’s Grocery List.
About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.
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