Whether it’s high school drill team, dance company, cheerleading, gymnastics, ballet, or another dance group, all types of dancers and gymnasts have similarities when it comes to nutrition for fueling graceful, hard-working, athletic bodies. During adolescence, what should a teenage dancer eat for optimal health and peak performance?
Teen dancers should eat meals and snacks focused on protein and carbohydrates with lots of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, fiber, and healthy fats. Examples include oatmeal with nuts and seeds, cheese cubes with bell pepper strips, flatbread topped with veggies and hummus, Greek yogurt parfaits, vegetable curries with brown rice, and fruit slices with nut butter.
General nutrition is important for dancers. However, special areas of concern include body image, injuries, hydration, and impact on performance. Just as a dancer needs practice and patience to perfect the correct moves, teens can learn thoughtful tips for staying nutritionally fit, too.
Read on to learn from a registered dietitian nutritionist everything you need to know about teenage dancers and nutrition. Tips are for female and male dancers!
What Foods Help A Teenage Dancer?
The purpose of nutrition when dancing is to successfully energize the following:
- Recovery or healing
- Time between workouts
Every dancer needs different food to fuel properly. There are many factors involved, including individual needs and level of training. The “best” food for a dancer is the one that helps fulfill their unique nutritional needs.
When choosing food it’s important to focus on whole foods as much as possible and limit processed, packaged, snack foods that typically contain too much added sugar, unhealthy fats, sodium, and too few healthy nutrients. Teen dancers don’t have a lot of extra space in their diet for “empty calories”. Teen dancers need to fuel their growing bodies with lean proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and important fats.
In this post I’ll share my favorite tips to help you thrive and dance on the right kind of energy and food.
How Many Calories Does a Dancer Need Per Day?
A dancer burns approximately 500-600 calories per 90 minute dance session. When determining nutrient needs for a dancer, here are some important questions to ask yourself (or your teen):
- How long is this dance session?
- How many dance sessions occur during the week?
- What other exercise occurs during the day?
The answers to these questions can help guide the way teen dancers replenish food and nutrients.
Daily Calorie Recommendations for Dancers
Calorie Recommendations for Female Dancers and Gymnasts:
|Age||Not Active||Moderately Active||Active|
|13||1,600 calories||2,000 calories||2,200 calories|
|14-18||1,800 calories||2,000 calories||2,400 calories|
|19||2,000 calories||2,200 calories||2,400 calories|
Calorie Recommendations for Male Dancers and Gymnasts:
|Age||Not Active||Moderately Active||Active|
|13||2,000 calories||2,200 calories||2,600 calories|
|14-15||2,000 – 2,200 calories||2,400 – 2,600 calories||2,800 – 3,000 calories|
|16-18||2,400 calories||2,800 calories||3,200 calories|
|19||2,600 calories||2,800 calories||3,000 calories|
- Not Active – No activity besides going about your regular day.
- Moderately Active – About 30-40 minutes of extra activity per day.
- Active – More than 40 minutes of activity per day. Most teen athletes are at 1-3 hours per day of activity from sports practice or games.
What Nutrients Are Important For A Dancer?
Specific nutrients can help a dancer recover faster, heal better, feel more energized, and increase endurance and stamina.
Calcium and Vitamin D
One of the most common injuries in dancers are bone stress injuries. Bone stress fractures occur when body weight decreases and bone density is low. Risk tends to increase when exercise is high but calorie intake stays low. In other words, if you aren’t eating enough but you’re exercising a lot then you are at increased risk for stress injuries and fractures.
Calcium and vitamin D help to regulate bone health. Vitamin D is extremely important for teenage dancers since teens are growing. The roles of calcium and vitamin D are many, but most notably they do the following for the body:
- Strengthens bones and muscles
- Prevents stress fractures
- Acts as a hormone
- Keeps immune system functioning
Build strong bones by eating these foods:
- Chia Seeds
- Leafy Green Vegetables
- Fatty fish
Dancers need to make sure their bones and muscles are strong and protected to strengthen movements and endurance. Eating enough food throughout the day is crucial to maintain healthy bones. The body needs enough calories and nutrients to grow properly and keep bones strong.
B vitamins play an important role in energy production. They help make usable energy in a teen’s body from the fats, carbs, and proteins ingested. They also play a role in the production of red blood cells.
Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) assist in regulating muscle health. Ensuring that vitamin needs are met each day can help improve performance.
See also: Best Supplements for Teenage Athletes
Dancers need sufficient minerals for metabolism and muscle function. Phosphorus and magnesium, in particular, help with energy metabolism. Teen dancers can get their daily dose of these nutrients by eating enough fruits and vegetables each day.
Iron is another important mineral. Meeting iron needs allows teen dancers to reach their prime. Teen bodies use iron to carry oxygen to the blood. Oxygen is then used to help the body produce energy, especially important for exercise and dancing.
What Foods Should Dancers Avoid?
Dancers shouldn’t make nutrition goals based on restricting or limiting foods. Restricting foods can lead to:
- Dehydration- losing more than 2% body weight in sweat can result in early fatigue, cardiovascular stress, increased risk of heat illness, and decreased performance
- Disordered Eating- eating disorders are prevalent among dancers
- Deprivation- depriving the teenage body of nutrient needs goes beyond dancing performance — it can damage the body
- Deficiency- dancers are at higher risk for energy deficiency and nutrient deficiencies if not properly feeding themselves
Since dancing provides cardio and strength exercise, dancers may experience added stress and inflammation in their bodies. Due to this stress and inflammation, certain foods may be easier on the body to digest. The overall goal should be to minimize inflammation and maximize nutrition and recovery. It is also possible to fortify the body and prevent future injuries or decrease their severity.
Dancers should eat a range of foods, no foods should be “off-limits” but there are foods that should be limited and only eaten as “sometimes foods”.
Here are some examples of foods to limit (but not restrict) for dancers
It’s best to limit these foods during the season, if not always:
- Fatty foods -fried foods, french fries, hamburgers, fried chicken, greasy pizza, bacon.
- Sugary foods -too many desserts, candy, treats, etc.
- Soda and sugary beverages
- Alcohol -any amount of alcohol is a bad idea for an athlete (especially teenagers)
- Artificial sweeteners -can affect digestion and cause an upset stomach
- Energy drinks -they are usually carbonated, full of caffeine, sugar, and other unnecessary ingredients
- Highly processed snacks
What foods to avoid on performance day, or before practice:
- Carbonated or sugary beverages
- Gassy foods (beans, hummus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower)
- Spicy foods (depending on personal tolerance)
- High fiber foods (such as beans, lentils, some whole grains, seeds, broccoli)
- Excessive caffeine
- Excessive supplements
- Dairy products- for individuals who are more sensitive
Remember, all foods fit in a healthy diet in moderation and balance.
Eating Disorders and Body Image in Teenage Dancers
Traditionally, thinner dancers were thought of as “better dancers”. However, thinner or leaner doesn’t necessarily equal better performance.
Dance is a sport that blends athleticism with art. It’s common to feel as though a specific “look” is associated with dance. However, being too thin can be just as dangerous as gaining an unhealthy amount of weight.
Demystifying Myths about Teen Nutrition and Dancers
A recent study showed that the ability for Irish dancers to correctly identify foods as high or low in carbs, proteins, or fats was varied. Body composition in these dancers correlated with nutrition knowledge. In other words, knowledge about nutrients was linked to how optimal their body measurements were.
Teen dancers should be aware of basic nutrition principles in order to fuel themselves well. Here are some of the most common myths broken down.
Myth #1: It’s all about fat and calorie intake.
The truth: Fats are good, calories are good. It’s all about balance. Look for foods that fulfill nutrition needs for your individual body. It’s much healthier, both mentally and physically, than obsessing over fat or calories. Studies have shown that ballet dancers tend to have a fat status below the suggested healthy range.
Fat provides the base for many hormones. Hormone regulation is crucial in a developing adolescent body. Don’t be afraid of fats, enjoy healthy fats each day. Most teen dancers would benefit from adding more healthy fats (like half an avocado, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds, 1 oz of nuts) to his or her diet per day.
Healthy fats that are are great for endurance activities (i.e. dancing):
- Nut butters
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Fatty fish
Myth #2: Carbs are evil, and you should avoid them at all costs.
The truth: Carbohydrates (carbs) act as a main, easy accessible source of energy for the body during exercise. Instead of seeing carbs as evil, try striking the right balance.
Don’t listen to fad trends about low-carbohydrate diets; that will not be beneficial during dancing. Carbs are your friend for exercise and your body’s #1 preferred fuel source for energy. Be sure to choose healthy carbohydrates. Carbs are not bad or fattening. The only bad carbs are processed and refined carbohydrates and those eaten in excess.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes should get between 55-60% of total calories from carbohydrates. For a teen dancer eating around 2,400 calories each day, that’s 330-360 grams of carbohydrates each day. Limiting or restricting carbs can impair performance and well-being.
Here are some excellent carbs to fuel with before or after dancing:
- Whole grains
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
It’s also okay to celebrate with sweets every once in a while! Savor sweet foods, but avoid reaching for refined products like cakes, doughnuts, or sugar-sweetened drinks as part of your daily routine.
Myth #3: Protein loading or protein supplements are absolutely essential for your best performance.
The truth: As a teen dancer, you should aim for getting enough calories throughout the day from nutrient-rich foods. Dietitians and studies suggest that protein deficiency is rare in dancers that are getting enough calories throughout the day.
Instead of pills, powders, drinks, or unknown supplements, try to get your protein from the following sources instead:
- Soy products (i.e. soy milk, soy yogurt)
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about 12-15 percent of total calories should come from protein throughout the day. For a teen dancer eating 2,400 calories in a day, that means 72-90 grams of protein per day. That’s pretty easy to get in a typical diet without even trying. Most teens are well beyond this mark.
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- Dietitian Recommended Protein and Energy Bars for Teens
- Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
Myth #4: You should listen to other dancers for eating advice. Since they dance like you, they will know what your body needs.
The truth: Trends of “what I eat in a day” can be deceiving and misleading. Even among the dancing community, every teen’s needs are different. You can’t compare yourself because everyone is different, so don’t follow any trendy or bizarre training habits or nutrition regimens just because you heard another great dancer is doing it. If it sounds fishy, don’t do it.
You know your body better than anyone else. Your needs may be different than other people around you. Fine tune your routine and also allow it to evolve to fit your unique needs.
How Many Meals Should A Dancer Eat?
For each dancer, the answer looks a little different to this question based on age, sex, training amount, size, etc. Most dancers will thrive from eating every 3-4 hours which equals about 3 meals and 1-3 snacks per day.
A typical dancer schedule might look like:
- 7:00 Breakfast (typically 500-800 calories)
- 10:00 Morning Snack (typically 100-300 calories)
- 12:30 Lunch (typically 500-800 calories)
- 3:00 Afternoon Snack/Pre-Workout Snack (typically 100-300 calories)
- 5:00 Post-Workout Snack (if needed, 100-300 calories)
- 7:00 Dinner (typically 100-300 calories)
- 8:30 Snack (if needed, 100-300 calories)
The meals dancers eat should sustain them through rigorous training schedules, long hours of performing and practice, regular growth, and be enough to keep their body in elite athletic conditions.
Does a dancer’s dietary pattern need to be perfect? No, but it should take these three main areas into consideration when it comes to nutritious meals:
- Strength and performance
- Maintaining a healthy weight and promoting regular growth
- Reducing fatigue & injury
Dietitians and Dancers
If you (or your teen) needs more help with dancing nutrition to reach top potential, you may want to consider meeting out to a registered dietitian nutritionist, specifically a sports dietitian or pediatric dietitian. Dietitians can help tailor recommendations to meet individual needs, schedules, preferences, concerns, and goals.
Special areas of discussion with your dietitian might include:
- Needs as a teen of your specific age (i.e. what a 15 year old dancer needs compared to a 19 year old dancer)
- Nutrition needs during times of practice, rehearsal, competition, etc.
- Menu planning, recipes, grocery shopping
- Managing a healthy weight
- Managing emotional eating or disordered eating
- Sports-specific concerns (i.e. injuries, gastrointestinal discomfort, anemia)
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Specialty diets (vegans, vegetarians, food allergies/sensitivities, etc.)
The guidance of a sports dietitian can help dancers develop a healthy weight management plan, find proper levels for energy needs and hydration, and introduce supplements or other aspects as needed.
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How Many Snacks Should A Dancer Eat?
Putting together a quick and healthy snack is a great way to remain ready for a practice or performance. Dancers should eat every 2-3 hours during the day to maintain energy, which means 3 meals and about 1-3 snacks per day.
Tips for Snacking Healthily
A recent study on teen dancers showed that energy deficits were mainly due to the inability to plan energy intake. This led to the inability to meet the higher nutrition and energy requirements that dancers need. Planning healthy snacks for busy on-the-go athletes is key to having enough energy and performing at top potential.
Planning nutritious snacks is a key part of the process, from training to performance days. Here are a few helpful tips for healthy snacking:
- Prioritize meal planning (include snacks in your plan)
- Keep a snack in your dance bag (i.e. protein bar or energy bites)
- Remember this simple formula – carbohydrates + protein (i.e. fruits + nut butter)
Some of my favorite healthy snacks for dancers include:
- Small bag of whole-wheat breakfast cereal plus a Greek yogurt
- Energy bars such as Lara bars
- Pouches of tuna or salmon with whole-wheat crackers
- Hummus and cut-up veggies
- Fruit slices with peanut butter
- Cheese cubes and bell pepper slices
- Homemade protein oat “power balls”
- Protein fruit smoothie
If you don’t fuel yourself properly, you’ll get fatigued earlier, feel light-headed, and not be able to perform at your top potential. It’s worth it. Always keep healthy snacks with you, you never know when you’ll need it.
What Should Teen Dancers Drink?
Dancers need plenty of fluids, especially as teens. Water is the gold standard of hydration, meaning it provides the most benefit nutritionally for the general population.
For dancers, dietitian recommended protein drinks or 100% fruit or vegetable juices can also provide nutrients. Chocolate milk is also an excellent option as it provides carbohydrates for quick fuel, vitamins and minerals, fluid, and protein for recovery. Drinking a beverage with higher mineral content and limited added sugars and fats is the best option.
Electrolytes are also an essential part of exercise recovery. The word “electrolytes” is just a fancy term for minerals like sodium (salt), calcium, and potassium. These elements help the body absorb the fluid it intakes.
Drink choices should not have too much sugar. Excessive sugar and too few electrolytes means the body is not receiving the replenishment it needs- especially in the case of a teenager’s growing body.
Beyond drinking nutritious beverages, a well-balanced, healthy, whole food-based diet provides plenty of electrolytes.
Should Dancers Drink Sports Drinks or Energy Drinks?
The goal of drinks for dancers should be to rehydrate properly. Teens need to replenish the fluid lost through sweat during training and exercise.
Here is a general guide to follow for exercise:
- Short duration (under 1 hour) – water
- Moderate/high intensity (over 1 hour and sweating intensely) – electrolyte drink with 6-8% carbohydrate solution (i.e. chocolate milk, sports drink with limited added sugar). Drink about 20 oz.
When exercise is intense and you are sweating, it’s important to restore carbohydrates. About 100 calories per hour or 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour is needed to maintain blood sugar at an optimal level.
Is it OK to Dance After Eating?
While it is okay to dance after eating, the rule of thumb is to eat at least an hour before dancing if you can. Most dancers don’t like to dance on a full stomach and prefer eating their pre-workout snack or meal 1-4 hours before training.
Longer training sessions may require a snack or sports drink (see above) to provide sufficient fuel.
The Last Word on Teen Dancer Nutrition
Dancers participate in an impressive blend of artistry and athleticism. For teen dancers, it’s especially important that nutritional needs are met. Good nutrition, including the proper macronutrient amounts and meeting micronutrient needs, allows dancers to reach peak performance while also developing into healthy adults.
What Foods are Bad for Dancers? A dancer should avoid eating processed carbohydrates, refined grains, candy and unhealthy treats, fatty fried foods, and soda. A healthy diet can include small amounts of favorite foods, so nothing should be off-limits, but a dancer’s body is best fueled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Eat foods that make you feel good, occasionally that means a satisfying pizza or pasta dish.
What is a Good Snack for a Dancer? Some of the best on-the-go snacks for dancers include a bag of whole-wheat breakfast cereal, energy bars such as Lara bars, pouches of tuna or salmon with whole-wheat crackers, hummus and veggies, fruit slices with peanut butter, cheese cubes and bell pepper slices, homemade protein oat “power balls”, or a protein fruit smoothie.
What Should a Dancer Eat for Breakfast? A dancer should eat healthy carbohydrates and protein for breakfast. Some of the best breakfasts for dancers include: breakfast burritos, Greek yogurt granola parfaits, nut butter toast and fruit, protein fruit smoothies, veggie omelets, oatmeal with nuts and seeds, cottage cheese with fruit, or flatbread with hummus, eggs, and roasted veggies.
What Do Dancers Eat to Stay Fit? To stay fit a dancer needs to eat 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day depending on age, size, sex, and activity amount. A dancer should eat whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Some great foods to add to a dancer’s diet include nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, colorful fruits, eggs, nut butters, dates, fish, oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, popcorn, beets, and avocados.
How to Dancers Eat? Dancers don’t need to go on a diet to stay fit and healthy. Dancers focus on eating whole foods and limit processed and packaged snack foods. Dancers shouldn’t restrict calories or food because it will limit their dancing skills if they aren’t getting the energy they need to dance.
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