Iron Intake, Anemia & Dancers

Proper nutrition is always a concern for dancers. Dance is an activity that requires high levels of energy fueled by food, but it is also an activity that requires an aesthetically pleasing body. Since dancers are often concerned about their appearances, they tend to limit the amount of food they eat. Eating a limited amount of food means dancers are not likely to get enough required vitamins and minerals in their daily diets.

Not consuming adequate amounts of iron can be detrimental to dancers and other athletes. It becomes an even bigger concern when you understand that iron is a mineral that can be lost through sweat. On extremely warm days, during an intense class or rehearsal, dancers can lose between 1 and 2 mg of iron.

A study of 47 female teen dancers in New Zealand found that 28% of them had iron levels that were less than ideal, and 5 dancers were found to have an iron deficiency. Another study conducted in the United States found that only 12% of 28 teen female ballet dancers ingested the recommended daily intake of iron.

Iron deficiency is a problem because results in anemia. Our bodies use iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the main part of our red blood cells and the part of our blood that binds with oxygen. Hemoglobin’s main job is to attach itself to oxygen in the lungs and deliver that oxygen to all of the other parts of the body. Our muscles and organs need oxygen to function, and our brains need oxygen to think clearly and operate well.

When there is not enough iron in the body, hemoglobin cannot be created, and oxygen delivery cannot occur. When a dancer is anemic, he or she may feel tired or weak, may have cold hands or feet, look pale, be moody, get injured easily and may have difficulty with concentration and memory.

It is very important that dancers consume enough iron so their bodies can function at their highest levels, and they can focus in class and remember combinations and choreography. 

Although everyone needs iron, it is especially important for teens. The body needs higher amounts of iron when going through a growth spurt. The average adolescent should try to ingest 6-8 mg of iron each day. Dancers and athletes need to have 9-12 mg per day to help distribute extra oxygen to their active bodies and make up for any iron that is lost through sweat.

Although iron can be gained from a supplement, the majority of iron we ingest should come from the food we eat. There are two kinds of iron that can be found in food. Iron that is found in meat is called heme iron. The body can absorb 15-18% of this kind of iron. Some sources of heme iron are beef, lamb, liver, seafood, pork, and chicken.  The other kind of iron can be found in plants and is called non heme iron. The body can only absorb about 5% of the iron found in these foods. Some sources for non heme iron are grains, dried fruits, and nuts.

It is very important for dancers to think about how much iron they are getting when they plan their meals and snacks. Being sure to ingest enough iron will keep them dancing at peak levels and help lower chances of injury.

Beck K.L., Mitchell S., Foskett A., Conlon C.A. & Von Hurst, P.R. (2015). Dietary intake, anthropometric characteristics, and iron and vitamin D status of female adolescent ballet dancers living in New Zealand. International Journal of  Sports Nutrition and  Exercise  Metabolism, 25 (4), 335-43.

Bonbright, J. (1989). The nutritional status of female ballet dancers 15-18 years of age. Dance Research Journal, 21(2), 9-14.

Lee, H., Kim, D. & Kim, S. (2015). An analysis of nutrients intake, related factors of anemia and bone density in ballet dancers. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 8(25), 1-6.

Pacy, P.J., Khalouha, M., & Koutedakis, Y. (1996) Body composition, weight control and nutrition in dancers. Dance Research,  14(2), 93-105.

The Female Athlete Triad and What It Means for Dancers

"To keep the body in good health is a duty..." - Buddha

The female athlete triad is a medical term that refers to three separate health conditions occurring at the same time in female athletes. The three conditions are:

Caloric Energy Deficit – Typically dancers are conscious of the food they eat.  They worry about ingesting too many calories and gaining weight. The problem with this logic is that calories also supply dancers with the energy they need to perform in class, rehearsals and on stage.  By reducing their caloric intake, dancers often end up burning more calories than they eat and create an energy deficit.

Irregular Menstrual Cycles – Many dancers experience irregular cycles or may find that their periods stop completely. The purpose of periods is to support the life of a developing baby. If the body does not have enough fat or is not at a healthy weight that could sustain both the body and a developing fetus, periods will stop. Dancers who are below a healthy body weight and/or lack body fat may experience irregular cycles or an absence of a cycle.

Osteoporosis – Irregular or absent menstrual cycles cause low levels of estrogen in the body. Our bodies need estrogen to be able to properly absorb and use calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. If our estrogen levels are low, calcium is not absorbed and bone growth in hindered. The lack of bone growth leads to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a decrease in bone density which results in weakened bones that can break easily and may result in stress fractures in dancers.

When all three of these factors combine, they create a weakened state and a very unhealthy dancer.

Knowing how to eat healthy is a key element in avoiding the female athlete triad. Dancers need to remember that they expend a lot of energy on a daily basis and that the food we eat is the fuel that powers our bodies. According to USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, active teen females should consume between 2200-2400 calories per day. It is extremely important that these calories be healthy calories that will provide dancers with enough energy to get through their long days of classes and rehearsals and enough protein to keep their muscles healthy. 

Learning about nutrition and what to eat before and after class and rehearsals is extremely important. It is also important that dancers who experience irregular or an absence of menstrual cycles speak with their health professionals to avoid sliding down the slippery slope of injury.