How Much Protein Do Dancers Actually Need?

You've probably heard that protein is essential in a dancer's diet. But you might not know what protein actually does for your hardworking bod, how much you should be eating, and—gasp!—why it could actually be overrated. We asked Andrea Chernus (a registered dietitian nutritionist who advises Juilliard students and Hamilton cast members) and Nora Minno (a certified personal trainer, registered dietitian, and former pro dancer) to spill all the protein pointers they share with their dancer clients.

Why Do Dancers Need Protein?

"Protein is important for everyone, especially young dancers," Chernus says. Your body uses protein for growth and development, muscle repair, immune function, bone development, and energy metabolism, to name just a few. "When you lose blood from menstruating, protein helps make new blood cells," Chernus adds.

How Much Protein Should Dancers Get?

"One rule of thumb is to make protein about 20 percent of your daily calories," says Chernus. "Depending on how much you're dancing, it can be anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent of your caloric intake. You might also need more protein when you start a new training regimen. Once muscles acclimate, they won't need additional protein to repair themselves." That said, don't fixate on percentages or total grams, which depend on body weight, gender, whether you're growing, and how grueling your dance schedule is. If you're still concerned or unsure about your protein needs, consult a nutritionist who works with young dancers.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein?

Yes, says Minno: "Too much protein can be hard on the kidneys." And if you ignore natural hunger and satiety cues to single-mindedly focus on an arbitrary number of grams of protein, you might end up feeling too stuffed to dance well in your next class. "It's better to eat a varied diet that includes the three main macronutrients in balance: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats," Minno says.

What Happens with Too Little Protein?

"Getting hungry only a couple hours after a meal can be a sign that you didn't have enough protein at that meal," says Chernus. "Insufficient protein intake can also cause fatigue and muscle soreness. After a while, hair can fall out or thin." But don't worry—this won't happen after just a week or two of not enough protein!


When Should You Eat Protein?

"The body can't store protein for later use the way it stores fat or carbohydrates," says Minno. "Before and after dancing are the two most important windows to help your muscles rebuild quickly and efficiently. If you're weight-training or dancing a ton, consume at least 10 grams of protein pre- and post-exercise." TL;DR version: Spacing your protein intake out throughout the day is best for dancers.

What If You're Vegetarian or Vegan?

"Being vegetarian or vegan is about much more than just being a meat avoider," says Chernus. "It's important to include good sources of protein to replace what you're omitting." Meeting with a dietitian or sports nutritionist might help you understand what your body needs on an individual basis. Those on plant-based diets will need to eat tofu, soybeans, edamame, tempeh, dairy (if you're vegetarian), and other varied sources of protein. "Dancers come to me and say they're vegetarian, but that they don't eat beans or soy," says Chernus. "They're not going to be able to fuel their bodies appropriately, and there'll be too much muscle breakdown—which is a recipe for injury."

Should I Supplement?

Protein bars, shakes, and drinks shouldn't be your only sources of protein. "If you're at the theater all day and don't have time to go heat up a quinoa bowl, a protein shake or protein bar can keep you full, satiated, and energized throughout the long day of dancing," Minno says. Whey, pea, rice, egg, and soy protein powders are all backed by research—choose whichever tastes best to you. "But don't spend money on extra supplements unless you're having trouble fitting in your daily protein needs," Minno says.

Is Protein Overrated?

"Dancers typically think they need more protein than they do," Minno says. "The general recommendation for an average teenager is about 52 grams of protein, and young dancers who aren't trying to bulk up don't need to exceed that." Real talk: Most Americans get enough protein as long as they're consuming enough calories and eating a balanced diet. Focus on real foods, different colors of fruits and vegetables, and different plant foods and proteins, and you'll likely get what you need. As Minno says, "If you look at your diet as a broad, 24-hour experience, you won't have to focus too much on any one part of it."

A version of this story appeared in the October 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Perspectives on Protein."

Latest Posts

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search