The Science of Supplements

February 28, 2015

How many dancers are taking them—and why their reasons may be misguided

Always looking for an edge up, it seems that dancers have been increasingly turning to dietary supplements to boost their health and energy. Whether they’re taking protein powder, fish oil or magnesium pills, many believe the daily demands of the studio require more nutrition than what one can get from food alone. A study published in the December 2014 issue of Medical Problems of Performing Artists revealed just how prevalent supplements are in the dance world today: Out of an international roster of 334 dancers surveyed, 49.8 percent reported regular use, with caffeine, multivitamins and vitamin C being the most popular.

Dancers noted that they took supplements to maintain good health, boost immunity, reduce fatigue, improve energy, prevent injury, speed recovery from injury, improve performance and make up for an inadequate diet. However, some of these strategies may be misguided. “Reasons like prevention of injuries is erroneous, as there are currently no proven supplements that can prevent injuries,” says sports nutritionist and former dancer Derrick Brown, who published the study with his former professor Matthew Wyon. Adding to the controversy, new research published online last November in The Journal of Physiology found that taking antioxidant supplements can actually be counterproductive to athletes, negating the strength gains you’d typically get from resistance training. Earlier studies have shown that large doses of vitamins C or E result in smaller response from endurance exercise.

Yet dancers are modeling their nutrition after athletes. “For the first time, we now know that dancers are ingesting similar products as athletes, like amino-acid compounds, for their purported benefits of strength gains and performance enhancement,” explains Brown.

One finding that raised a red flag was the surprisingly small number of female dancers who took calcium, iron and vitamin D supplements. Research has shown that dancers are often deficient in iron and vitamin D, and calcium is vital to bone health.

However, the most worrisome result was that dancers were looking to their colleagues and friends (79 percent) and teachers (11 percent) for nutrition advice rather than asking health-care professionals. But dancers do want to educate themselves, as 76 percent of respondents taking dietary supplements wanted more information on them. “If dancers are trying to get the edge up, as it were, then medical professionals should be aware of this and take appropriate steps to provide evidence-based information on these products that would allow dancers to make informed decisions,” says Brown. In the meantime, he suggests that dancers seek out the expert advice at such institutions as Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, the U.K.’s National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, the Netherlands’ National Centre Performing Arts, the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Medical Website and the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science resource papers. The more science-backed advice dancers get, the more likely they are to see the results they’re seeking.


Which Supplements are Most Popular?

Out of those respondents who used supplements regularly, here’s what they took.

Vitamins % Ergogenic %
Multivitamin 67      Caffeine 72
Vitamin C 60      Omega-3, -6, or -9 fish oils 38
Vitamin D 44      Calorie replacements 26
Multivitamin with minerals 42      Energy drinks 22
Vitamin B12 39      Creatine 14
Vitamin B6 32      Glucosamine/chondroitin 12
Vitamin B Complex 31      MCT oils 11
Vitamin E 29      HMB 2
Vitamin A 26      Pyruvate 1
Beta-carotene 14
Minerals % Protein/Other %
Magnesium 44      Amino acids 29
Calcium 43      Egg protein 23
Iron 38      Whey protein 21
Zinc 31      Glutamine 18
Potassium 24      Soy protein and isoflavones 16
Folic Acid 20      Rice protein 14
Niacin 16      Branched-chain amino acids 14
Selenium 16      Arginine 10
Phosphorus 14      Pea protein 9
Copper 12      Casein protein 8
Chromium picolinate 8      Aspartic acid 6
Sodium bicarbonate 8      Beta-alanine 5
Cobalt      Hemp protein 5
     Weight-gain powders 3