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By Jacqui Gal
Many dancers have their own personal regimen when it comes to vitamins. They might take a multivitamin with breakfast, a calcium supplement after class, and then some glucosamine before bed for joint pain. Some like to pile on vitamin B supplements during heavy performing periods, or scarf down vitamin E capsules when their joints ache. However, as nutritionists point out, dancers have lots of misconceptions about when and how many vitamins they should take. Vitamin supplements can be abused like anything else. Here’s a rundown of some common vitamin myths.
Myth 1: Only a doctor can figure out my vitamin needs. Unless you have serious nutritional issues, you probably won’t need to consult an internist. The simplest way to determine whether you’re getting all the necessary vitamins is to keep a food diary for a week and look carefully at your intake. If you’re limiting carbs, red meat, or dairy, you’re likely to have what dietician Roberta Anding, who is a consultant to the Houston Ballet, calls “nutritional holes.” A daily multivitamin is a good first step, and she also recommends a separate calcium supplement because female dancers are prone to osteoporosis.
Myth 2: You can’t have too many vitamins. More isn’t necessarily better. When you’re choosing a multivitamin, check the label for the percent of the daily value of each vitamin and mineral it provides. “Look for something that has between 100 to 150 percent of the daily value,” suggests Anding. Overdoing it can create problems, notes Peggy Swistak, a registered dietician and nutrition consultant at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “In my practice,” says Swistak, “I see as many nutrient poisonings as I do deficiencies.”
Some vitamins on the market have up to 5,000 percent of the daily requirement—way too much. The most troubling overdoses seem to happen with B vitamins, which some dancers believe provide an energy boost. “The only way to get energy is through calories,” explains Swistak. “The vitamins work like sparkplugs; they create the enzymes that burn the food.” In other words, you can’t pop a vitamin B pill in the wings to get a pick-me-up onstage, and you may do yourself real harm. “Since B vitamins affect the nervous system, you can have symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis from an overdose,” Swistak explains, “like numbing and an unsteady gait.”
Myth 3: If I’m getting the recommended daily requirement of calcium, it’s enough. Most women need an extra supplement just to reach the minimum daily requirement of 1,000 milligrams of calcium. But for dancers—especially those who don’t menstruate for a while—even this is not enough. “From a calcium standpoint,” notes Anding, “a dancer without her period is more like a postmenopausal woman. Her calcium needs can be as high as 1,500 milligrams a day and that’s a lot.”
Myth 4: Multivitamins formulated for women will best address my needs. With great competition among vitamin producers to grab your multivitamin dollar, savvy marketers keep coming up with new ways to tempt you to buy their products. One of these is the notion that men and women require a different vitamin formula. Overall, says Swistak, this isn’t the case, except for vitamins formulated specifically for seniors. “I tell my dancers to go to Wal-Mart and get the cheapest standard multivitamin formula,” she says, “as long as they have all the correct ratios, the correct amount of iron, and all the rest of it.” Everything else, says Swistak, is a ploy.
Myth 5: If I mix and match, I’ll be fine. Once you know which vitamins you need, you can hit the stores and grab a few bottles, right? Wrong. When it comes to vitamin supplements, says Anding, there’s only a certain amount that the body can absorb at one time. Just because you swallow it, doesn’t mean you reap the benefits. “Appropriate supplementation is not as easy as popping some pills. Simply because it’s on the label doesn’t mean that your body’s going to be able to use it all,” Anding says. This is where consulting a nutritionist can help. Keep in mind that some supplements cancel each other out. For instance, a calcium and iron combo can undermine the benefits of each. To maximize absorption, Anding suggests taking calcium supplements at a different time of the day than iron.
Myth 6: Natural is always better. Many dancers take homeopathic supplements. They think, “Since this is natural, it can’t hurt me.” Somehow these herbal remedies have become grouped with vitamins in popular thinking. But they are not vitamins, and the Food and Drug Administration does not test them as rigorously. Nevertheless, they do have an effect on the body and may be a bad mix with medication that you’re already taking. Some people take St. John’s Wort, for example, to combat depression, but it will interfere with a host of prescription drugs, says Anding. “If there is an herb you want to try,” she adds, “go to the pharmacist, talk about all the medications you’re taking, and ask if there’s typically any negative interaction. If they don’t know, they have the resources there to look it up.”
Jacqui Gal is a New York writer who frequently covers wellness.