How Many Calories Should A Dancer Eat


How Many Calories Should A Dancer Eat? The role of a dancer is to be fit and able to perform at the highest level possible. Ballet dancers can be super strong, agile and flexible. It takes a ton of work to put in such effort and maintain such a high level. The costumes that ballet dancers wear can also make them feel vulnerable to being perceived as overweight or unfit when they are far from it. This article aims to help dancers with their nutrition and give them some tips about how many calories should a ballet dancer eat.

The Importance of Nutrition For Dancers

I often see new dancers strive for a “perfect” diet to unlock their performance potential and/or reach their body goals. Striving for perfection, however, risks unhealthy habits, even when those habits are coming from a meaningful place. Remember: perfection doesn’t exist and when we strive to implement perfection or “clean” standards on our food choices, we risk entering a restrictive tunnel of eating, ultimately leading to burnout.

A common misconception among dancers is the idea that a “healthy” diet means eating the “right” foods, avoiding the “bad” foods, and achieving a certain weight. To best address the role of nutrition in a dancer’s diet, let’s look at the most common questions that I receive as a dance nutritionist.

What nutrients do dancers need?

What types of food should dancers eat?

To preface the types of foods recommended in a dancer’s diet, it’s important to address a dancer’s calorie needs. I don’t often focus on calories when working with clients, however, many dancers tend to underestimate their calorie needs. Calories provide the energy needed to not only perform but also to sustain basic metabolic functioning. Though calories are often feared in our diet-obsessed culture, calories are essential to a dancer’s active lifestyle. Eating too few calories risks injury and nutrient deficiencies.

Though calories are often feared in our diet-obsessed culture, calories are essential to a dancer’s active lifestyle. A balanced diet incorporates meals and snacks that balance all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. This ratio, or what I like to call the “nutrient mix,” is critical to a dancer’s menu.

Carbohydrates (goal: 55-60% of a dancer’s diet) are a dancer’s best source of energy. Complex carbs are found in plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains, such as oats, farro, bulgur, barley, and freekeh, are particularly high in energizing nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Quinoa is technically a seed but is often eaten like a grain. Remember, non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens) should not replace grain-based carbs on your plate. Incorporate both as part of a balanced meal.

Protein (goal: 12-15% of a dancer’s diet) has long been considered the star macronutrient in our diet-drenched culture. While protein plays a key role in muscle building, the body also requires carbs and fats. Without these two macros, the body breaks down muscle (protein stores) for energy. Protein is found in both animal- and plant-based foods. Animal-based proteins like fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt are considered high in biological value. In other words, these proteins provide all essential amino acids for muscle building. Vegetarians and vegans can obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based diets, however, it requires proper planning. The good news? Today’s food landscape offers an abundance of plant-based high-quality proteins such as pseudo-cereals (quinoa and buckwheat) and ancient grains (farro and freekah). A diet rich in these foods as part of a variety mixed with veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes can provide all essential amino acids to working muscles.

Fat (goal: 30% of a dancer’s diet) is an essential nutrient for a dancer’s active body. Our society’s overwhelming fear of fat however often overshadows the vast health benefits surrounding this macronutrient. Adding fat to a meal promotes satisfaction, which keeps us full throughout the day. A dancer’s body undergoes a great deal of wear and tear from high levels of physical activity. Unsaturated fats predominantly found in oils (olive and canola), fatty fish (salmon, tuna), avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butter offer anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce inflammation and promote muscular repair.

The micronutrients are also essential and include vitamins and minerals like calcium, Vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. To learn more about these nutrients, sign up for my 3-day nutrient crash course, which is specifically designed to outline a dancer’s micronutrient needs.

How much water should a dancer drink during the day?

Our body is made of 60% water and therefore, it’s critical to replenish and hydrate! I encourage dancers to aim for at least 3 liters of water daily. Daily needs may be higher if dancing for longer than 60 minutes and/or in hot and humid environments. To optimize your hydration on intense dancing days, add a salty snack (like pretzels) and a simple carbohydrate (like fruit) to replenish electrolytes and muscle glycogen.

BTW- our thirst mechanism doesn’t activate until the body is already approaching dehydration. Instead of relying on thirst to dictate your water intake, plan ahead and remain diligent. A 1-liter reusable water bottle is a great way to remember to hydrate regularly. Refill it 3 times throughout the day!

How do I banish cravings for unhealthy foods?

This might surprise you, but the best way to banish cravings is to ENJOY them! Though we sometimes feel that sugar is addicting, there is no solid evidence to support this! There is evidence however to support the fact that RESTRICTIONS drive cravings. Intense cravings often result from the moral value placed on more indulgent foods. When we label these foods as “bad” and/or place these foods on a self-imposed “forbidden food” list, we subconsciously desire them. Humans are curious beings… we want what we can’t have! Rather than running from your cravings, enjoy them mindfully and as part of a well-rounded meal plan. If you’re feeling guilty when eating such foods, then read this article ASAP.

It’s not easy to build new habits! Most often, this requires behavioral change as a means to rebuild our relationship with food and body. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is encouraged for dancers looking for a personalized approach. A licensed professional will help you unlock the power of meal planning, macronutrient optimization, and help with enhancing your body’s utilization of micronutrients.

What Should a Teenage Dancer Eat?

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: 

  • Workouts
  • 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:
AgeNot ActiveModerately ActiveActive
131,600 calories2,000 calories2,200 calories
14-181,800 calories2,000 calories2,400 calories
192,000 calories2,200 calories2,400 calories
Calorie Recommendations for Male Dancers and Gymnasts:
AgeNot ActiveModerately ActiveActive
132,000 calories2,200 calories2,600 calories
14-152,000 – 2,200 calories2,400 – 2,600 calories2,800 – 3,000 calories
16-182,400 calories2,800 calories3,200 calories
192,600 calories2,800 calories3,000 calories

Activity Levels:

  • 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: 
  • Milk
  • Yogurt 
  • Cheese
  • Chia Seeds
  • Nuts
  • 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. 

Other Vitamins

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. 

What Does a Ballerina Eat?

With the 2010 release of the movie “Black Swan,” a spotlight has been turned to the world of dance and ballet, specifically the lifestyles of ballerinas. When “New York Times” critic Alastair Macaulay made a snide remark about ballerina Jenifer Ringer’s weight while performing in 2010’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” it became clear how much pressure and scrutiny dancers are under when it comes to diet and weight. A smart ballerina relies on balanced meals for dancing fuel, rather than starvation tactics in order to lose weight.

Caloric Intake

Ballerinas might dance anywhere from four to 10 hours a day, depending on the practice and performance schedule of the season. This means that she is burning as much as 1,200 to 2,000 calories dancing each day. New York City Ballet nutritionist Marie Elena Scioscia recommends that ballerinas eat anywhere between 1,600 and 2,200 calories per day, depending on the scheduling, roles and other activities. Starvation tactics and simply not eating enough can result in a less-energized ballerina.

Healthy Balance

When it comes to the types of food ballerinas eat, there must be a balance of carbohydrates, protein and saturated fat. The combined three offer energy, muscular strength and endurance as well as healthy joints and bones, all necessary for athletes like ballerinas. By balancing each meal for 55 percent complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, pasta and fruit; 20 percent lean protein, such as turkey breast or tofu; and 20 to 25 percent unsaturated fats from food items like olive oil and nuts; a ballerina ensures that she has the nutrients her body needs to perform well.

Meals and Snacks

A ballerina may often need to eat on the run as she travels to and from practices. Also, long rehearsals may mean that she needs to eat at the studio. Highly portable meals are best so a ballerina needn’t rely on fast food or restaurant fare for the proper nutrition. Three balanced meals per day, along with two snacks, are necessary to keep energy levels high in order to stay focused and disciplined. Skipping meals is highly discouraged, as it could lead to hunger, dizziness and a loss of coordination. A ballerina must also stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day.

Sample Day

A healthy ballerina wakes up and eats a well-rounded breakfast. An egg white and veggie omelet paired with an orange and a few slices of turkey bacon start the morning off properly. While at the studio practicing, she might have a snack of dried fruit and nuts or protein-packed string cheese. When she breaks for lunch, a whole wheat tortilla roll-up with lean meat, vegetables and light mayo served with vegetables and hummus for dipping helps her refuel for a grueling practice. Another snack is eaten mid afternoon. Then, dinner may be made from whole wheat pasta and steamed vegetables drizzled in olive oil and served with grilled chicken breast.

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