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Pivot Pointe
September 1, 2023

Female Dancer Nutrition With Francesca Straniero Part 1

Sport & Dance Nutritionist

Understanding the Menstrual Cycle and Its Impact on Dancers 

Francesca Straniero is an Italian nutritionist based in London. She offers guidance on understanding nutrition, supporting sports performance, and restoring a healthy relationship with food. Francesca's goal is to teach individuals how to eat in a sustainable and gentle way to support their lifestyle and long-term health.

In this two-part series, we discuss dancer nutrition in relation to the menstrual cycle and what dancers can do to achieve optimum nutrition and performance.

Photo Courtesy of Francesca Straniero

Q: How does the menstrual cycle impact the nutrient needs of female dancers?

Francesca Straniero: Thank you for this question. First, I want to clarify that I am a nutritionist and not a doctor or GP. I will provide scientific resources and research to answer this question.

Regarding the first question, there are two main hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle: estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is known to suppress appetite while progesterone is known to increase appetite and hunger. The menstrual cycle is split into two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Based on the levels of hormones during each phase, we may experience different symptoms and levels of hunger.

During the early stage of the follicular phase (days 1-7 of the menstrual cycle), when both estrogen and progesterone levels are low, we may experience a slight dip in our energy level and performance. Consuming a higher intake of complex carbohydrates during this phase can be beneficial. During the second part of the follicular phase, as estrogen levels start to rise, we may have more energy and be able to train longer and harder. Increasing nutrient intake, especially carbohydrates, fat, and protein, can support optimal recovery. During the initial phase of the luteal phase, estrogen levels start to rise again and this may enhance aerobic performance. However, when progesterone levels peak at the mid-cycle, it can inhibit some of the beneficial effects of estrogen, leading to bloating or fluid retention and a higher core temperature. Increasing nutrient intake, particularly complex carbohydrates and protein, can help regulate cravings and stabilize blood sugar levels. During the final phase, PMs symptoms may occur, and carbohydrates and fiber-rich foods can help ease symptoms. It's important to keep in mind that everyone's body is different and that over-consuming fiber can lead to bloating for some people.

In summary, understanding how the menstrual cycle impacts nutrient needs is essential for female dancers to optimize their performance and recovery.

Q: What are some common nutrient deficiencies that female dancers may experience, and how can they be prevented?

Francesca: Female athletes, particularly dancers, are prone to several nutrient deficiencies. Iron, calcium, and vitamin D deficiencies are among the most common. Vitamin D can be obtained from food, but most of it comes from sunlight exposure. However, those who spend most of their time indoors, have dark skin, or live in areas with limited sunlight exposure may need vitamin D supplementation.

Iron deficiency is common among athletes, especially female ones. Regular exercise can increase the risk of iron deficiency due to an increased inflammatory response while exercising. Additionally, iron absorption decreases three to six hours after exercise. Female dancers are also at higher risk because of their menstrual cycle. Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet may also be at risk because the iron in plant-based foods is not easily absorbed by the body. To increase the absorption of non-heme iron found in plant-based foods, it is recommended to pair them with a source of vitamin C. Foods rich in vitamin C include kiwi, peppers, strawberries, and orange juice. It is also important to pre-soak grains or legumes before cooking to make them more absorbable.

Calcium is essential for bone health, optimal functioning of the heart and nervous system. Those who consume animal products should include dairy products in their diet. However, even if they consume animal products, most people do not consume enough dairy products. Female dancers should ensure they get enough calcium from sources like yogurt or milk. Those following a vegan diet can consume dairy-free alternatives that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Seeds and green leafy vegetables are also good sources of calcium. Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet should focus on incorporating these micronutrients into their diet. It is important to speak with a GP before taking any supplements, as excessive consumption can be harmful.

Photo by Jannes Jacobs

Q: Before we move on to the next question, let's talk about iron and dairy. Do we need to consume a lot of it per day? Is a glass of milk, a serving of yogurt, or some cheese enough? Does it have to be a large amount for optimal intake?

Francesca: Micronutrients are named as such because we need them in smaller amounts than macronutrients like protein, carbs, and fat. For example, a good way to incorporate dairy products in your diet is to start your day with yogurt and have a couple of snacks during the day, or have some cheese. However, be mindful that too much saturated fat can be harmful and should be limited. Dairy products are a great source of calcium and protein, but they can also contain more saturated fat. Additionally, make sure to incorporate vegetables that are high in iron, like kale, into your diet.

Q: Are there any specific foods or supplements that should be incorporated into a female dancer's diet during different phases of the menstrual cycle? Are there any dietary strategies that can help reduce symptoms such as bloating and fatigue during the menstrual cycle?

Francesca: Yes, there are some dietary strategies that can be helpful. First, it's important to ensure that you're consuming enough ads. Many dancers don't consume enough complex carbohydrates, which can also help manage bloating. It's important to feed our gut with the right nutrients, including portions of fruits and vegetables per day.

Foods like coffee or fermented foods can also help keep our gut healthy. However, be mindful of more fermentable foods like lentils, chickpeas, beans, or broccoli, as they can be quite gassy. If you experience bloating and gas during this phase of the menstrual cycle, it may be worth reducing your consumption of these foods during that time.

Remember that everyone is different, and especially women, we all experience different symptoms and have different needs. Listen to your body and double-check with your own body whether a particular strategy works for you or not. Our bodies are very clever, so it's important to pay attention to them and find what works best for each individual.

Q: Are there any foods or supplements that should be avoided during the menstrual cycle?

Francesca: Regarding supplements, it is best to consult with a doctor or GP since their effectiveness may vary per individual.

When it comes to food, there are no inherently bad or good foods that should be avoided or consumed. However, certain foods can be limited to help alleviate symptoms. For example, caffeine, alcohol, and foods high in sugar should be limited. Instead, it is more beneficial to increase consumption of whole grain foods.

Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that can disrupt sleep and worsen symptoms for some individuals. These should also be limited if one has a sensitive gut as they can trigger gut symptoms such as bloating. Limiting salt intake can also be beneficial, especially for those who experience retention during their menstrual cycle.

It is important to listen to your body and consult with a GP if you experience changes or worsening symptoms during your menstrual cycle.

Q: How can female dancers ensure they are getting enough protein to support muscle growth and repair?

Francesca: When it comes to protein intake for dancers, it's important to remember that it's individualized. Needs will vary based on factors like training intensity and body weight. As a general guideline, female dancers should aim for up to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, this can vary depending on the individual. To ensure adequate protein intake, it's recommended to distribute protein intake evenly throughout the day. This means aiming for a minimum of 20-30 grams of protein per meal or snack. Having three main meals and two to three snacks per day can help meet protein needs.

Protein can come from animal sources like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and cheese. For those following a vegan diet, sources of protein can include lentils, beans, soy-based products, and protein powders. Quick and convenient protein shakes can be a helpful option for busy dancers who need a snack between classes.

It's important to remember that protein is not the only nutrient needed for muscle growth and repair. Carbohydrates are also crucial for providing energy and supporting recovery. Including a source of carbohydrates with protein snacks and meals can help maximize the benefits of protein intake.

Photo by Louis Hansel

Q: How can female dancers adjust their nutrition strategies during injury or recovery periods?

Francesca: When dancers are injured, they may think that they need to reduce their calorie intake because their training level has decreased. However, the body's metabolic rate actually increases during recovery, so energy intake should be higher to account for the energy needed to heal.

To heal, the body needs to be fed with enough energy, protein, and salt. Protein breakdown and muscle protein breakdown can occur if the body is not properly fueled, so it is important to consume about two to three grams of protein per kilogram of body weight during recovery periods. This is double the normal recommendation.

In 2020, a study was conducted that came up with recommendations for the recommended grams of carbs, protein, and fat during injury recovery periods. Following these recommendations can help ensure a smooth and speedy recovery process.

Q: What can dancers do to manage irregular menstrual cycles or missing periods?

Francesca: Normally, a menstrual cycle lasts 28 days, but can range from 21 to 40 days. This includes the entire cycle, not just the bleeding period which usually lasts for 5 to 7 days, but can vary. It is important to know what is normal for your body and to consult a GP or gynecologist if you experience irregular or missing periods.

There are several reasons why a woman may experience irregular menstrual cycles, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis. Missing periods is not normal and can be a sign of malnutrition or other health issues. Consultation with a GP and healthcare professionals such as a nutritionist or dietician can help to regulate the cycle or address any underlying health issues.

It is important to raise awareness about menstrual health and to break the taboo surrounding it. Teachers can play a role in promoting menstrual health by checking on their dancers' menstrual cycles and educating them on what is normal. This is important for male teachers as well.

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