Dancers, Here's What it Really Means to #CountYourMacros

December 30, 2019

If your Insta feed includes even one dancer/fitfluencer, you’re probably familiar with the term “macros” (short for “macronutrients”). If you take the time to “count your macros,” some dancers and fitness pros promise, you’ll gain strength and energy. But when you talk to a nutritionist, it quickly becomes clear that a dancer-friendly diet just can’t be reduced to simple addition. Allow us—with the help of registered dietitians Laura Moretti and Roberta Anding—to explain.

Macros 101

“Macronutrients are the three basic energy-yielding nutrients in your diet: carbohydrates, protein, and fat,” explains Anding, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics who worked for 15 years with Houston Ballet. Most food you eat, whether whole or processed, is literally made up of these three MVPs, in some combination. Each calorie (aka each unit of energy) in any given food item comes from a macronutrient. That’s what’s meant by Nutrition Facts labels’ references to “calories from fat” : The label shows you how much of the energy the food contains is energy from fat.

“They’re called ‘macro’ because they make up the larger part of your diet—they’re the nutrients that we need in the largest percentages,” says Moretti, consulting dietitian to Boston Ballet and Boston Ballet School. “That’s as opposed to micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals.” To dance your best, you need to eat a variety of foods (aka macronutrients) that are also rich in micronutrients.

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Playing the Counting Game

You’ve probably noticed that those Nutrition Facts labels measure protein, carbohydrates, and fat in grams. “Counting your macros” means adding up the calories per gram of each macronutrient you consume throughout the day. The idea is that these three daily totals will each land within a certain range based on your age, gender, level of physical activity, and other factors.

How to add up the macros in unlabeled foods? Most dancers look the stats up online—which is at best an inexact science, according to Anding: “A lot of the nutrition information available from programs like MyFitnessPal can be uploaded by users, and therefore isn’t necessarily verified. You’d need to really know portion sizes to be sure that the numbers you’re seeing have any meaning.”

While we’re on the subject of numbers: Unless you’re working closely with a nutritionist, any target daily macronutrient ranges you come up with are unlikely to be ideal for your nutritional needs at this particular moment in your dance career. By way of example, dancers (“especially pre-professional students, or dancers doing an all-day intensive,” Moretti notes) simply need a higher percentage of carbohydrates than the general population does. According to the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, 55 to 60 percent of a growing dancer’s daily calories should come from carbohydrates.

Plus, both Anding and Moretti agree that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by trying to categorize every single thing you eat. For example, did you know that all vegetables are in fact carbohydrates? Not only that, but dairy products (and plenty of other foods) are made up of carbohydrates and protein. Basically, calculating the macros in your afternoon snack can become too complicated a task to complete between class and rehearsal.

Adding It All Up

Unless you’re on a highly specialized or restricted diet, it’s unlikely that your macronutrient balance is unhealthy as it stands right now. A bigger risk, says Moretti, is that dancers who fixate on their macronutrient proportions can end up chronically under-fueling—which can lead to missed or delayed periods, overall nutrient deficiencies, more frequent injuries and illnesses, and so on.

What’s a health-conscious dancer to do? Focus instead on following your natural hunger cues and building a balanced plate. If you’re into the macro concept, just imagine each meal being about one-third each of veggies, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruit, or starchy vegetables), and protein-rich foods. As Anding says, “You don’t have to count, weigh, or measure to properly fuel your dancing.”