There’s no doubt that at some point along 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:
Micronutrients: • Vitamin D • Calcium • Iron • Zinc • B Vitamins • Vitamin E Macronutrients: • Fat (specifically omega 3 fatty acids) • Carbohydrates • Protein
Both calories and nutrients are supplied through food. Given the dangerous “eat less” mentality of our diet-drenched culture, consumers often attempt to reduce food intake as a means to control weight. A resulting need to maintain nutrient status translates into a reliance on vitamin- and mineral supplements, which act as an insurance policy for health. Advertisements surrounding dietary supplements often come packaged with a glorified means of wellness, further enticing us into purchasing. The abundant and undeniably clever marketing tactics of the supplement industry illustrates a story of questionable promises to “fix,” “correct,” and/or “prevent” nutrient deficiencies. 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 supplement, consider the following:
Make an Informed Decision:
Whether you will benefit from a supplement or not is largely dependent on individual circumstances like diet and lifestyle. Before believing the latest headline, weigh the pros and cons:
Pros: • 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.
Cons: • 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. 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.
Know When Supplements May Be Necessary:
This is a common question deliberated among athletes, dancers, and even researchers. 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. In regards to nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals however, supplements can help to support underlying deficiencies. If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet for ethical and/or religious reasons, 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 Since vegan diets lack food sources high in iron and vitamin B12, those following such a diet should refer to resources to optimize plant-based meal planning.
How About a Daily Multivitamin?
I often recommend a daily multivitamin as a means to “fill the gaps” of any potential nutrients missing from one’s diet. Beware that multivitamins, along with other supplements, don’t contain the intact fibers and biochemical markers that whole fruits and veggies provide. Therefore, you’ll want to make it a priority to include at least five servings of fruits and veggies in your daily meal plan.
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, calorically restrictive, and nutrient poor diets risk deficiencies that diminish health and ultimately performance. Furthermore, 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.
By Rachel Fine
Rachel Fine, founder of To The Pointe Nutrition and Creator of The Healthy Dancer online training course (www.DanceNutrition.com), is a New York City-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and specialist in Sports Nutrition. With a Masters degree in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics from New York University, Rachel received licensure and certification upon joining the staff of clinical nutrition at NYU Langone Medical Center and has been involved with dance research at NYU’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. As a dancer and performing artist, Rachel intertwines her passion for ballet and nutrition to deliver the most attainable, yet scientifically sound, information to today's top dancers.