There’s no doubt that at some point along with your dance training, you’ve heard about supplements. Dietary supplements represent a multi-billion-dollar industry that is defined and regulated differently around the world.
In the US, the FDA defines dietary supplements as “a product intended to supplement the diet.” These products contain ingredients — vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, protein isolates— among others. Dietary supplements can come in a variety of forms some of which include foods (like energy bars), drinks, powders, capsules, and tablets.
If not consuming a well-rounded diet that is sufficient in both calories and nutrients, dancers are at risk for developing key micronutrient and macronutrient deficiencies. Common concerns include:
- Vitamin D
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin E
- Fat (specifically omega 3 fatty acids)
Both calories and nutrients are supplied through food. Given the dangerous “eat less” mentality of dancer diet culture, dancers often attempt to reduce food intake as a means to control their weights. Advertisements surrounding dietary supplements also come packaged with a glorified means of wellness, further enticing us into purchasing. The undeniably clever marketing of the supplement industry illustrates a story of questionable promises to “fix,” “correct,” and/or “prevent” nutrient deficiencies.
A resulting need to maintain nutrient status translates into an over-dependence on dietary supplements, which act as an insurance policy for nutrients that might be missing from the diet. While supplements may be medically necessary for certain populations or those following restricted diets (like veganism), a well-planned and food-first approach is key to a healthy lifestyle.
…a well-planned and food first approach is key to a healthy lifestyle.
Before deciding whether or not you can benefit from a nutrition supplement, consider the following:
#1: Make an Informed Decision
Whether you will benefit from a supplement or not is largely dependent on individual circumstances like diet and lifestyle. You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons:
- Supplements can help dancers and athletes “fill in the gaps” if and when certain vitamins and/or minerals are lacking from one’s diet.
- Supplements (like electrolyte-infused drinks) can help dancers and athletes hydrate optimally.
- Supplements can be used to address or prevent a medically diagnosed nutrient deficiency.
- Supplements are often expensive and have side effects, such as constipation from iron tablets.
- The supplement industry is poorly regulated and some may contain ingredients that are undeclared or even considered dangerous contaminants.
- Some supplements contain ingredients that are prohibited by anti-doping codes of sports nutrition.
#2: Know When A Supplement Might Be Necessary
The evidence supporting the use of supplements to enhance an athlete or a dancer’s performance is extremely limited to short-term results and anecdotal reports. There are some instances however when supplements might be necessary to support underlying deficiencies. To assess whether or not you need a supplement, consider these two questions:
1. Am I already consuming enough of this nutrient regularly?
First, avoid self-diagnosing nutrient deficiencies. Always consult with a licensed medical professional. A trusted doctor can perform a simple blood test to identify potential deficiencies and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help to analyze your current intake to see which habits might be contributing to the insufficiency and/or what foods might be excluded from your diet. If adequate intake is not practical through diet alone, then supplementation might be warranted. Among dancers, vitamin D and iron are two nutrients that often present deficient.
2. How can I modify my food choices to obtain enough of this nutrient?
Skipping to supplementation can lead to an expensive new habit. A few tweaks to your daily food intake might be all that is needed to correct an underlying nutrient deficiency. Vitamin C and calcium are two common examples. Increasing your intake of fruits, veggies, and dairy products (or dairy alternatives) can easily improve your nutrient status of both vitamin C and calcium.
For dancers specifically, a well-planned diet should ensure sufficient caloric intake and adequate intake of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.1 Food preferences (such as a vegan lifestyle), allergies (such as a gluten-free lifestyle), and religious practices can result in the regular omittance of certain foods and therefore be a reason for supplementation. For example, since vegan diets lack food sources high in iron and vitamin B12, it’s encouraged that vegan dancers refer to resources for plant-based meal planning.
#3: Consider the Industry
Though recognized by the FDA, the supplement industry is largely unregulated. In 2016, the New York Times published an article revealing the concerning truth of conflicting research surrounding supplements concluding that “…a cautionary approach to supplements is wise.” A 2015 article uncovered an alarming number of hospitalizations related to supplement use, mainly herbs, and botanical supplements.
Assessing the safety and efficacy of your supplements is important. Ask yourself: is there strong and substantial evidence that supports the use of supplement XYZ to help me with issue XYZ? Caution with using Google to research this on your own. Consulting with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is encouraged. A Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition can access and translate scientific jargon into digestible information. Furthermore, third-party testing (such as BSCG Certified Drug-Free, Informed-Choice (or Informed-Sport), NSF Certified for Sport, and USP Verified) ensures that the supplement in hand is free of banned substances.
#4 How About a Daily Multivitamin?
A daily multivitamin can help to “fill the gaps” of any potential nutrients missing from a dancer’s diet. Since multivitamins, along with other supplements, don’t contain the intact fibers and biochemical markers that whole fruits and veggies provide, you’ll still want to prioritize an abundance of fruits & veggies in your weekly meal plan. This is especially true for “Super Greens” and “Green Powders.” Most are expensive and lack the intact nutrients found in whole vegetables. Here are a few helpful articles that dive into balanced meal planning for dancers:
#5: How About Protein Powders?
While no evidence supports the use of protein powders for the enhancement of your muscle’s response to training, protein powders can be a reliable way to support a dancer’s recovery if busy schedules make it tough to incorporate adequate amounts of high-protein foods throughout the day.
Unlike most protein powders, whey protein is high in leucine, an amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Plant proteins, such as almond, soy, and pea are not as effective as whey, but can still provide beneficial effects on recovery. When compared to other plant-based protein powders, soy protein is a complete protein that contains all essential amino acids.
Collagen is another popular protein supplement that is often marketed for joint and skin health. Research remains mixed in regards to the benefits of collagen supplementation. Without needing to rely on expensive supplementation, we can incorporate a variety of foods that contain specific nutrients known to help boost our body’s natural production of collagen. Zinc, vitamin C, and copper all act as cofactors in the production of collagen. Also, avoiding behaviors that damage naturally occurring collagen (like smoking and excessive sun exposure) can help.
In regards to muscle recovery, collagen is not considered a complete protein. This means that, unlike whey or soy protein, a collagen supplement won’t provide us with all essential amino acids. Consuming adequate protein from high-quality sources will be your best bet for muscle recovery. If you are considering a supplement, choose a third-party tested plant or whey protein powder. You can utilize this to increase the protein content of your smoothie by adding a protein powder that contains at least 20 grams per serving.
The Bottom Line:
Generally, supplements are not needed if your diet is well-planned and consists of a variety of plant-based and/or animal-based whole foods. Poorly planned and calorically restrictive diets can risk deficiencies that diminish health and ultimately performance. On the flip side, taking mega doses of one vitamin or mineral can result in a deficiency of another, simply because the two literally compete for absorption. Before starting any new supplement, ask a medical professional, such as a licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for advice.
- Brown DD. Nutritional Considerations for the Vegetarian and Vegan Dancer.J Dance Med Sci. 2018 Mar 15;22(1):44-53.