Nutrition for Ballet Dancers

When used together in the same sentence, the words “ballerina” and “diet” tend to conjure up stereotypical images of what most believe to be the meal plan of a typical dancer: diet coke, cigarettes, and the occasional two-bite salad.

While this diet may have been somewhat true thirty or forty years ago, ballerinas of the modern era take a much smarter approach to nutrition. Diet sodas and cigarettes lie in the sepulcher of dance menus, replaced instead with body fueling foods like bananas, rice, and even (dare we say it?) chocolate.

If you’re a dancer struggling with the crash-diet mentality, check out the tips below on proper ballet nutrition. After all, little girls may be made of sugar, spice, and everything nice, but their tutu’d counterparts are made from a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein, monounsaturated fats, fruits and vegetables!

A Balanced Diet Is a Healthy Diet

Here are the basic food groups you should include in your diet:

  • Carbohydrates such as breads, grains, and cereals.
  • Proteins such as fish, eggs, and poultry.
  • Good fats like nuts, avocados, and olive oil.
  • Fruits like raspberries, melons, and bananas.
  • Vegetables such as carrots, spinach, and broccoli.
  • Milk products such as yogurt, cheese, and reduced fat milk.

Together, these food groups comprise a balanced diet. Crash diets that cut out one or more of these groups, like carbohydrates or fats, will cause a dangerous imbalance. Likewise, any diet that goes too heavy on one food group can lead to health problems like high cholesterol, thyroid gland malfunctions, and water retention.

However, keep in mind that all food groups are not equal; each group has a recommended number of servings per day, as outlined in detail below.


Possibly the most important food group for any athlete, carbohydrates provide energy when your body needs it. Known as “fast burning” fuel, carbs are broken down in your body quickly, which allows your body to more readily use the metabolized energy. That means that if you’re feeling weak or tired, munching on a serving of carbs can make you feel refreshed and refueled within the hour.

To simplify, carbs are good because:

  • They provide quick burning energy
  • They fill you up
  • They don’t feel heavy in your body
  • They are often low in fat

The best source of fuel is whole grains or another type of complex carbohydrates. Whole grains are in their most natural form, which means that they’ll be easier for your body to break down. They also provide longer, more sustained energy since they don’t cause a spike (and subsequent crash) in your insulin and blood sugar levels.

Here are some good carbs to munch on:

  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat pasta


Proteins, like carbs, fuel your body. However, the key difference is that while carbohydrates break down to give you quick energy, proteins are broken down much more slowly, and help both build new tissue (muscle and bone) and provide long-term, stored energy.

This means that if you’re fatigued, eating a serving of proteins won’t do you any good within the hour; the proteins take longer to break down in your system, so the benefits will be gradual and delayed.

Simply put, proteins:

  • Provide long term energy
  • Help build strong bones and muscle
  • Make you feel full, longer

It’s good to consume these foods in smaller amounts, spaced-out throughout the day. This way you’ll have a constant supply of long burning energy without feeling weighed down by proteins in your stomach.

Some great proteins to choose from are:

  • Fish
  • Peanut Butter
  • Eggs
  • Lean cut meats & poultry

Good Fats & Oils

Most dancers hate any mention of the word “fat,” but there are, actually, good fats in existence, and your body needs them to function properly.

You should always try and limit the amount of fat and sugar you consume (particularly refined fats and sugars like French fries and candy bars), but a splash of healthy fat each day can lower your risk of heart disease and help transfer nutrients throughout your body.

Healthy fats include any kind of monounsaturated fat which is easier for your body to breakdown and store in a more beneficial way than saturated fats. Once processed, healthy fats become the body’s most abundant form of stored energy, used when other resources—carbohydrates and proteins, for example—have been depleted.

Monounsaturated fats and oils:

  • Aid in digestion
  • Keep skin healthy
  • Prevent the storage of unhealthy, saturated fats
  • Provides small amounts of energy towards the end of a long workout
  • Contain vital fatty acids (which support everything from mental clarity to clear skin!)

Having one or two small servings of healthy fat per day will keep your body running smoothly without the weight and fatigue of processed sugars and poly saturated fats.

Healthy fats and oils include:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Some fish (herring or sardines)

Hot Tip: Read the Label

Many mainstream companies have begun to produce unrefined, whole wheat products. So the next time you go grocery shopping, try to find these more basic, healthy foods. Sometimes they’re tucked away on the last shelf, but the price is usually the same, and the nutrition benefits far outweigh those in more refined grains.


Despite their reputation as summer foods, fruits are available all year round, and should always be a part of your daily diet. While not a central source of energy (the simple sugars burn off too quickly), fruits do contain unique vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function.

In short, fruits:

  • Provide essential vitamins and minerals that benefit specific areas of the body.
  • Contain many different antioxidants that help the body recover from stress.
  • Supply fructose and simple sugars the body can break down for quick bursts of energy.
  • Have large amounts of fiber, which help regulate the digestive system.

Fruits are great to snack on throughout the day, even though they aren’t as filling as complex carbs or proteins. In general, fresh fruits are best. Avoid eating canned fruits or fruit “drinks,” as these contain high levels of processed sugars instead of actual fruit. If you must opt for a juice, go only for 100% fruit juice; these retain the essential nutrients of the fruit, but without the added sugars and fillers contained in most cocktails and blends.

Some good fruits to include in your diet are:

  • Blueberries
  • Apples
  • Tomatoes
  • Oranges


Vegetables are similar to fruits in that their greatest contribution to your diet is not the energy, but rather the vital nutrients they supply. They contain many vitamins and minerals that you can’t find in fruits, including folic acid, iron, and potassium—all fundamental components of a healthy diet.

Vegetables can:

  • Provide essential vitamins and minerals that benefit specific areas of the body.
  • Contain many different antioxidants that help the body recover from stress.
  • Have large amounts of fiber, which help regulate the digestive system.
  • Help regulate blood-sugar and insulin levels, thanks to their typically low level of simple sugars.
  • Ease muscle cramps with potassium

Like fruits, vegetables are best when eaten raw. Veggies are easy to pack and pull out at the studio or school, making them portable nutrient trucks just waiting to deliver the goods to your body.

Some great veggies are:

  • Celery
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Spinach
  • Cucumber

Mental Edge

Your mother always told you to eat your vegetables. And there really was—and still is—a reason for her nagging. Be positive about “having” to eat veggies; staring down your green beans a la Wyatt Earp isn’t going to make you like them any more than you did when you were a kid.

Milk Products

While milk products are often discouraged due to their frequently high fat content, they serve as vital pabulum within the body. Calcium, the main nutrient gained from milk products, is an integral part of having a long and successful dancing career. It not only maintains and supports strong bones (to keep bones stress-fracture free) but also, when combined with Vitamin D, can increase heart health and overall well being.

Milk benefits you by:

  • Providing calcium for strong bones.
  • Increasing Vitamin D absorption.
  • Allowing “good” fats into your system.
  • Adding small amounts of protein to your diet.

Look for low-fat or fat-free and hormone-free or unprocessed dairy products. This will allow you to get the calcium you need without the unwanted fat.

Some recommended milk/dairy products are

  • Low-fat (1% or 2%) or skim Milk
  • Unprocessed, low fat cheeses (Swiss, Parmesan, Cottage Cheese)
  • Low fat yogurts

Fun Fact

A study performed by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that those who have a Vitamin D deficiency are more likely to die young than those who maintain consistently high levels (greater than 17.8 ng/ml).

Change It Up!

The key to eating healthy while still keeping your desired ballet figure is to eat a wide variety of foods and focus on balance instead of restriction.

When you’re at the store, get outside your rut and buy many different kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables, snacks, grains, and proteins. This diversity will help you stay on track and happy with your meals (instead of getting tired of lentils and rice for dinner every day).

If you get discouraged, don’t resort to the cigarette and diet coke menu—it may squelch your appetite, but it’ll leave you without enough energy to perform a simple tendu.

Sample Menu

Dancers are creatures constantly on the go; between classes, rehearsals, fittings and shows, you may not have a whole lot of time to sit down and eat. Try this simple menu to keep your body nourished and healthy without having to slow down.

Breakfast (Before class)

¾ cup oatmeal topped with ½ cup fruit (such as blueberries, peaches, or other seasonal fresh fruits)

1 hardboiled egg

1 glass (8 oz.) of 100% apple juice

Brunch Snack (Between morning class and rehearsals)

1 handful of almonds

1 cup or approximately 12 baby carrots

Lunch (After your first set of rehearsals/classes)

1 sandwich with two pieces whole wheat bread and 2 tbsp peanut butter

1 apple

1 slice unprocessed low fat cheese OR 1 6 oz. container fat free yogurt

1 glass (8 oz.) tomato juice

Afternoon snack

½ cup pretzels OR whole wheat crackers

¼ cup pistachios


2/3 cup brown rice

½ cup lentils OR black beans

1 small half chicken breast, baked

1 salad containing: 1 cup spinach, ¼ cup corn, 1/3 cup mushrooms, 1/3 cup pomegranate pips

(optional salad dressing: 1 tbsp olive oil, ½ tbsp lemon juice, 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar)


½ cup low fat frozen yogurt

1 mango (sliced) (can be added to frozen yogurt)

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