Dance News Health & Fitness Nutrition

Healthy Diet Habits for Teenage Dancers

  • April 24, 2014
  • by Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Dance Informa & Nutrition for Great Performances

Academic pressure, college preparation and long hours in the dance studio can make it hard to find time to eat healthy. Many of the teens I work with at the Centre for Dance Nutrition care deeply about their bodies, they know food is important but they struggle with having no time and not really knowing what to eat and when! Here is a quick summary of key nutrition tips for teen dancers.

You are more than a number on a scale.

The teen years are a time for questioning how you define yourself, but don’t define yourself by a number on a scale. Don’t allow the scale to be a dictator over how you feel about yourself. Real body weight goes through natural fluctuations throughout the day and week and month. Real weight gain or loss doesn’t occur in a few hours or days. Weighing yourself more than once a week could lead down an unhealthy road. Who you are and what you have to contribute to the art of dance is so much bigger than some arbitrary number. It’s good to be aware of weight changes overtime but don’t obsess over it. Real dancers come in all shapes and sizes. When you focus on making smart dietary choices consistently everyday, avoiding junk and soda, and mindfully choosing reasonable portions, body weight is usually in the healthy range.

How to Maintain a Healthy Weight

There are volumes of books written about this subject, but it fundamentally comes down to a few things that are all within your control and this is the perfect time to take responsibility for those choices:

  1. Planning ahead for meals and snacks. The number one barrier to healthy eating is busy schedules. Take back your life and plan out healthy snacks and make sure they are accessible and convenient. Eating 1,200 calories from a fast food restaurant can be avoided when you make a quick sandwich or throw a bar in your dance bag. Don’t go for more than three hours without eating something. For more tips, read my article “Eating Right on a Dancer’s Budget.”
  2. Control portions. It’s fine to have one piece of pizza, just not five. It’s fine to have one slice of birthday cake at a celebration, but dancers don’t need dessert every day. Be aware that restaurant portions can be two to three times as much food as needed.
  3. Avoid these foods always: Anything deep-fried, anything with high fructose corn syrup in it, any foods with dyes and all soda. Drinking a soda every day is 114 cups of sugar in a year (over 40 lbs (18kg).
  4. Don’t diet or restrict, make smart choices everyday. A dancer’s body is their instrument. If you were a pianist, would you pour soda all over the piano? If you were a violinist, would you stick chicken nuggets in your violin? You have worked too hard to compromise your body by feeding it chips, fries, sweets and GMO-laden fast food. Make the time to eat an apple, make a sandwich, cut up some carrots or make some oatmeal. Dancers can’t afford to eat junk. Aim for two to three servings of fruit and at least four servings of vegetables.

The Food and Skin Connection

The old-school mentality is that there is no connection between food and acne. Current research shows a different story2,3,4. Of course what you eat affects your skin, the largest organ in your body. In fact, the health of the skin can be a window into what is going on within. It has been suggested that acne is a reflection of a Western diet which is characterized by sugary processed foods and high dairy and meat, and that non-Western populations following a more traditional diet with low sugar, low dairy, unprocessed grains and high in vegetables don’t have acne2, 4. Acne could be for many reasons. If you have acne, first examine the possibility of food allergies particularly to the proteins in dairy, wheat (gluten), egg and shellfish. Eczema and hives (different from acne) are also frequently a problem in those with food allergies.

Key culprits in acne4:

  • Dairy (cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, pizza, smoothies, flavorings)
  • Fried-foods (French fries, chicken)
  • High Glycemic Index foods (white bread, refined cereals, sweets, soda)

I know that long days means eating on the run. Instead of fast food, eat a PB&J. Instead of starving yourself, grab a piece of fruit and a granola bar. Instead of a sweetened beverage, choose water. Challenge yourself to try a new and different food each week, like Swiss chard, radicchio, tempeh or chia seeds. Experiment with food, try new things, and take control of healthy eating.

Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD 
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at


2. Cordain L, LIndeberg S, Hurtado M, Hill K, Eaton SB, Brand-Miller J. Acne Vulgaris: A disease of Western Civilization. Arch Dermatol. 2002:138 (12):1584-1590

3. Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Volume 113, Issue 3, Pages 416-430, March 2013
4. Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. Relationship of self-reported dietary factors and acne severity in a cohort of New York young adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Volume 114, Issue 3 , Pages 384-392, March 2014

Photo © Citalliance |

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Dance Informa and

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