Iron Intake, Anemia & Dancers

Proper nutrition is always a concern for dancers. Dance is an activity that requires high levels of energy fueled by food, but it is also an activity that requires an aesthetically pleasing body. Since dancers are often concerned about their appearances, they tend to limit the amount of food they eat. Eating a limited amount of food means dancers are not likely to get enough required vitamins and minerals in their daily diets.

Not consuming adequate amounts of iron can be detrimental to dancers and other athletes. It becomes an even bigger concern when you understand that iron is a mineral that can be lost through sweat. On extremely warm days, during an intense class or rehearsal, dancers can lose between 1 and 2 mg of iron.

A study of 47 female teen dancers in New Zealand found that 28% of them had iron levels that were less than ideal, and 5 dancers were found to have an iron deficiency. Another study conducted in the United States found that only 12% of 28 teen female ballet dancers ingested the recommended daily intake of iron.

Iron deficiency is a problem because results in anemia. Our bodies use iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the main part of our red blood cells and the part of our blood that binds with oxygen. Hemoglobin’s main job is to attach itself to oxygen in the lungs and deliver that oxygen to all of the other parts of the body. Our muscles and organs need oxygen to function, and our brains need oxygen to think clearly and operate well.

When there is not enough iron in the body, hemoglobin cannot be created, and oxygen delivery cannot occur. When a dancer is anemic, he or she may feel tired or weak, may have cold hands or feet, look pale, be moody, get injured easily and may have difficulty with concentration and memory.

It is very important that dancers consume enough iron so their bodies can function at their highest levels, and they can focus in class and remember combinations and choreography. 

Although everyone needs iron, it is especially important for teens. The body needs higher amounts of iron when going through a growth spurt. The average adolescent should try to ingest 6-8 mg of iron each day. Dancers and athletes need to have 9-12 mg per day to help distribute extra oxygen to their active bodies and make up for any iron that is lost through sweat.

Although iron can be gained from a supplement, the majority of iron we ingest should come from the food we eat. There are two kinds of iron that can be found in food. Iron that is found in meat is called heme iron. The body can absorb 15-18% of this kind of iron. Some sources of heme iron are beef, lamb, liver, seafood, pork, and chicken.  The other kind of iron can be found in plants and is called non heme iron. The body can only absorb about 5% of the iron found in these foods. Some sources for non heme iron are grains, dried fruits, and nuts.

It is very important for dancers to think about how much iron they are getting when they plan their meals and snacks. Being sure to ingest enough iron will keep them dancing at peak levels and help lower chances of injury.

Beck K.L., Mitchell S., Foskett A., Conlon C.A. & Von Hurst, P.R. (2015). Dietary intake, anthropometric characteristics, and iron and vitamin D status of female adolescent ballet dancers living in New Zealand. International Journal of  Sports Nutrition and  Exercise  Metabolism, 25 (4), 335-43.

Bonbright, J. (1989). The nutritional status of female ballet dancers 15-18 years of age. Dance Research Journal, 21(2), 9-14.

Lee, H., Kim, D. & Kim, S. (2015). An analysis of nutrients intake, related factors of anemia and bone density in ballet dancers. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 8(25), 1-6.

Pacy, P.J., Khalouha, M., & Koutedakis, Y. (1996) Body composition, weight control and nutrition in dancers. Dance Research,  14(2), 93-105.