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Eat More, Weigh Less, Keep Dancing

Kristy Martin. Photo by Justin Smith

Haley Mathiot Western Carolina University 4/24/2011

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"The body has long been skilled in survival and adaptation, much longer than we have tried to look good on stage in a yellow leotard," say Robin Chmelar and Sally Fitt, authors of Diet for Dancers. Dancers spend years trying to achieve a perfect body for their art: lightweight, thin, but muscular. If they are too small they aren't strong enough to dance. But if they are too strong or heavy they can't be lifted by the men (and lets face it, nobody over 130 pounds looks good in a tutu). It's a race against the clock as they count their calories, eat only foods that won't be stored as fat, and work their bodies much harder than the average athlete. Most of them retire before the age of 40. They spend 15 to 20 training, several years dancing, and the rest of their lives recovering from their short career. Dancers should not have to fight against their bodies to be who their souls tell them to be. Any true dancer will tell you the same thing David Howard told me: "Stars are born, not made." Stars know from before they even set their eyes on a pair of pointe shoes that they must dance. But said stars still have to fight the same fight no matter how much they love ballet: how to eat enough food and have energy to dance eight or more hours a day, but somehow stay under 120 pounds. And those stars who fight for years to get their pointe shoes, who will do anything, suffer anything, go without eating, or wear down their bodies just to be on stage for a few minutes will tell you it's all worth it because to them, the only time they truly feel whole is when they're up there with the music flowing through their blood and the stage lights behind their eyes. They can only do it for a few years. They don't ever regret it, but it doesn't last forever. However, if care is taken and our stars are educated, it could probably last longer.

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My Research
I interviewed 6 nutritionists from around the country, and 4 professional dancers from various ballet companies. All individuals filled out the same basic questionnaire, but the form for the dancers was a little more specific and aimed toward them. There were 12 to 14 questions in the surveys. The questions were very basic and general, and covered nutrition, exercise, stretching, and sleep. Before beginning this project, I was still unsure of where the data would lead me. After beginning the research, I narrowed it down to just nutrition. I conducted an experiment on my own body, attempting to follow what I outline at the end of this paper to drop my body fat percentage and still get all required nutrition. The experiment lasted a little over two weeks before I had to stop for various reasons (see reflection). While doing the experiment, I wrote down everything I ate, when I ate, and how much of it I ate. I focused on the macronutrients more than vitamins and minerals. I recorded my weight and hydration levels daily, and my body fat percentage every few days. I read several books, pamphlets, scholarly journals, and articles from various magazines and websites (see Bibliography). I focused my energy on researching nutrition for women ages 16-25, since that was the majority of the data I found, and its the age where most dancers have the most difficulty with their weight.

What Science Tells Us

Modern science tells us there are basic nutritional needs that must be met in order for the body to function properly and to its fullest potential. The average caloric intake needed for an adult female is 2000 to 2500, depending on activity level. Susan Bogardus, one of the nutritionists I surveyed, says female runners need 3200 calories per day. Calories go towards

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everything from energy for daily activity to muscle recovery, building bones, boosting immune system etc. and if and someone doesnt get enough calories, serious health problems could occur. Through many recent studies, we have seen that how many calories a person eats matters less than what kinds of calories they eat. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2010, created by the US Department of Agriculture, 45-65% of daily calorie intake should be from carbohydrates, 10-35% should be from protein, and 20-35% from fats. The nutritionists mentioned in Diet for Dancers by Chmelar and Fitt have percentages very close to these, as does Guidelines for Dancer Health, the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum. Various other articles I used for research had approximately the same percentages, but they all fluctuated by five to ten percent. The recommended amount of water for the average adult ranges from 6-10 cups per day, depending on the activity level. Water is considered the fourth macronutrient to Zelda Mastin, author of Nutrition for the Dancer. She provides the following statistics: Our brains are 70% water, our blood is over 80% water, and our lungs are 90% water. Our total body-weight is 60% water. (49-50). It aids in digestion, flushes out the body, boosts the immune system and the metabolism, repairs damaged tissue, and a million other things. Research has shown that as little as 2% of total body hydration lost can seriously affect performance (USADA, 24; Mastin, 50). There is nothing wrong with exercising first thing in the morning, as long as the body has enough fuel and water to work properly. Gregory Holt, Program Associate at Dance USA, recommends eating something first thing in the morning for the blood sugar, like a few dates or a banana. There is some debate about eating before or after workouts. The general response from my research showed nutritionists recommending eating anywhere from thirty minutes to four

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hours before a workout, and choosing the contents of the meal based on how much time there is between the meal and the workout. There were conflicting answers about eating after workouts: Ally Wagner, dietician for Cincinnati Ballet, says its best to eat as soon as possible after the workout. Susan Bogardus, Dietetics educator at Western Carolina University doesnt like the idea of
athletes eating large amounts of calories after their evening workout. Chmlar and Fitt recommend not eating after a workout because the body continues to burn energy up to eight hours after a workout (7), however the fuel that is burned, more likely than not in the case of dancers, is muscle mass and not fat, and dancers need to keep as much of their muscle as they can. In my own experience, I have to force myself to eat after a workout because I never feel hungry after exercising. In one of Sarah Jerretts articles published in Pointe Magazine she explains, eating immediately after class is not important however eating in between [classes and rehearsals] will help your muscles recover from each workout and keep you going stronger for longer. The US Anti-Doping Agency recommends eating specific meals targeted to provide extra immediate energy a few hours before working out, and recovery snacks specifically targeted to help the muscles recover after working out. As much as there is mixed data, the general research says to eat before a workout to get energy, and after a workout in order to re-build muscles and glycogen stores that have been depleted due to exercise. All in all, it depends on the type of exercise. An athlete getting ready to do cardiovascular exercise should eat before, and an endurance athlete should eat after.

Most of the nutritionists I interviewed, as well as USADAs booklet, said to have 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week. Some nutritionists and data I found recommended having more than 300 minutes per week. Aerobic exercise is anything that uses at least 40% of the heart rate reserve.

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Ally Wagner provided the following table for body fat percentages:
Table 1: healthy body fat percentages 2/17/11

Age Range 20-39 yrs 40-59 60+

Too Low Under 21 Under 23 Under 24

Healthy 21-33 23-35 24-36

Too High 33-39 35-40 36-42

Obese Over 39 Over 40 Over 42

This is generally what was recommended from most other sources I researched as well. The research above has been proven time and time again to be necessary for basic health. However, in general, dancers do not follow these guidelines.

What Dancers Say and Do

In a study done by Chmelar and Fitt, dance students were given a quiz featuring statements about health and weight, and they had to determine which statements were true and which were false. Chmelar and Fitt found that many of the dancers were uneducated in the health necessities of their art. This may be due to teachers drilling in advice such as "eat less" and "don't drink milk" and "eat protein before a show." It may be due to personal experience. When I was dancing I found that I could not eat a hotdog before class, but I could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a cheese quesadilla. That was what worked with my body so that was what I ate before every class every day of the week. Not only was I burned out by peanut butter and cheese quesadillas after a few months, it probably wasn't the best food to dance on, nor did it help my body fat as both of those foods are high in fats. Gabrielle Revlock is a dancer, choreographer, and arts administrator. When asked about what foods to consume, she said vegetablesespecially the green ones, proteinnuts and beans and lean meat, some carbs. She said to work out first thing in the morning and eat after the workout.

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One anonymous dancer who was interviewed during the research part of this study said her nutrition got worse when she went to college. For dancing seven to eight hours a week and occasionally working out at the gym, she knows and admits she doesnt get enough vegetables, nor are her snacks the best choices. She eats after class rather than before, and doesnt often eat breakfast. The majority of one's plate should consist of a lean protein (3-4oz.), a complex carbohydrate, such as brown rice, and 1/2 of the plate should be filled with high fiber vegetables and/or fruit, says Wagner. A 4/1 protein to carbohydrate ratio is a good rule of thumb, again focusing on complex carbohydrates and lean protein. Another anonymous dancers diet consisted of mostly fruits and vegetables, limited carbohydrates and fats, and a good amount of lean protein. Her recommended calorie count was 1500-2500, depending on the metabolism. She said to eat an hour before dancing, have a large breakfast, medium lunch, and small dinner. Vanessa Laws, a soloist at Eugene Ballet Company says she eats a light breakfast like juice, fruit, or yogurt, and eats small snacks throughout the day with a larger more substantial meals when she gets home; but her schedule changes during performance week when she eats a large meal in the morning. Between my interviews and the general data found in the books and articles I found, the above diets are normal for dancers. Looking at Table 1 on page 5, dancers would laugh. The average professional dancers body fat will be between 9 and 16, which puts them far below the required body fat. The answers I got from my survey were somewhere around 10? Maybe? and Pretty lowyour body needs to be able to keep up with demands.

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Dancers often starve themselves. Perhaps not literally (though some of them do), but I define a "starvation diet" as a diet that involves not eating as much as is needed, or limiting calories to less than is expended. This may be anything from not eating cake to not eating a pickme-up snack to not eating carbohydrates. Dancersand many other people for that mattertend to think if they don't get enough energy from food, the body will burn off the extra fat for more energy. In reality, it is the opposite. The body needs glucose to survive. Specifically, the brain needs an incredible amount glucose to function. "The brain needs 100-140 grams of glucose a day which is equivalent to about 400-600 calories." (Chmelar and Fitt, 8). Glucose is found in muscles and, if enough calories are not consumed, the body will begin burning muscle to use the glucose. Eventually when the muscle that can be easily broken down is gone, the body will begin using a by-product of fat breakdown instead of glucose. As you may imagine, this is not good for the brain. If the brain doesnt get enough energy, dancers may experience headaches, depression, mood swings, anxiety, possible weight gain, and food cravings (Jarrett, 56). They will also find that they don't remember things as well, don't have as fast response time, and cant dance as well. Also, after starving herself, once a dancer hits her target weight and starts eating again, she will gain a large amount of weight back, and shell gain it as fat. Not eating tricks the body into survival mode, and when she starts eating again, her body will store everything it can for the next time she tries to starve herself to death. This is why many times when people try starvation diets, they tend to gain back more weight after the diet than they had before they started. Many dancers are surprised at the few amounts of calories burned by a ballet class. In a study by Cohen et. all in 1982 cited in Diet for Dancers, it was found that an hour long ballet class only burns about 200 calories for women and 300 for men (9). In a later publication by

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Zerlina Mastin, she said moderate intensity ballet burns 300 calories per hour, and high intensity burns 480 (10). The question is, these calories come from the muscle stores. In order for the body to burn fat, it needs to perform aerobic exercise for at least ten minutes, preferably fifteen to twenty to truly begin to get cardiovascular fitness benefits. Ballet is anaerobic exercise, because many ballet combinations last from thirty seconds to three minutes, and then the dancer is given a short recovery time to breathe and relax. The body needs glycogen for this type of exercise, and fat cannot be broken down fast enough to supply energy for it. In a nutshell, dancers use their muscle breakdown for energy in ballet class, and they need to find another way to burn fat, because ballet class and rehearsal won't do it. Dancers battle their weight every day. Even through my study and experiment on my own body I found that eating one little thing one day will change the body fat percentage and weight almost immediately. Because I didnt have a lot of control over what was prepared at the university, this made my goal extremely difficult. I combined the data from four different studies used in Diet for Dancers, and the average calorie count per day for adult female dancers was 1551 calories. However, Chmelar and Fitt claim female dancers ages 14-30 should consume 2400 calories per day (14). How much better could these dancers perform if they had fuel? There is conflicting research about the exact percentages of nutrition a dancer needs and consumes. Jarrett says to make sure each meal has a two-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which does not at all line up with Wagners 4:1::Protein:Carbohydrate ratio. According to Diet for Dancers, most dancers get too much protein. The dancers I interviewed also stressed lean protein, and not a lot on carbohydrates. Protein contains Phosphorus, and too much of it can cause the body not to be able to use calcium properly,

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thereby causing weakening of bones (Scioscia). Carboydrates, on the other hand, provide nearly immediate fuel and are the main source of energy for the body.

What Dancers Should Be Doing

Dancers should eat six meals a day. Well, technically everyone should eat six meals a day. But dancers, especially those who are trying to loose or keep off the weight, should eat small frequent meals. They don't need to be hungry, they dont need to starve themselves. In fact, they will find that when they eat constantly through the day, they will consume all their needed nutrition but they won't be hungry between meals, and theyll have a steady flow of energy. Eating changes the blood sugar level in the body. Any time the blood sugar level drops, you feel hungry. When it goes up, you feel full. If you eat several small meals through the day, the blood sugar level is remaining basically even and steady, the body is getting constant energy, and the metabolism is working all day, burning off stored energy as well as the energy that is coming in. This also maximizes stamina, skill, and performance (Mastin, 17). Eating breakfast "wakes up" the metabolism. If a small snack or small meal is eaten, the body is given enough of a kick to wake up and start digesting. This gives the dancer a little extra fuel than what shed have if she danced on an empty stomach, relying on last nights dinner only. Then, as long as small regular meals are eaten throughout the day, the body has a more regulated blood sugar level, eliminating the feeling of hunger and keeping the metabolism going all day. Not only does this burn fuel more efficiently, but daily exercise becomes more efficient, the individual has a faster mental response time, and has more energy in general. Just like when dancers starve themselves and the body slips into starvation mode and tries to store everything, when dancers eat often and boost the metabolism, the body relaxes into burn everything mode,

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and burns off everything it is being given in order to keep up with the food input and calories expended. As far as the macronutrients, it depends on the individual dancer. Carbs should make up the majority of a dancers diet, since they are the main energy the body uses. It depends on the dancer, but carbs should make up somewhere between 60-70% of the diet. Of these carbohydrates, its best to eat complex carbohydrates, like starches and fiber, rather than quick food carbohydrates, containing mostly simple sugars. Fat should be kept low, around 15-25%, but not neglected. As long as only the proper fats are consumedMonounsaturated fat and Polyunsaturated fatin a good proportion, fat consumption should not be a problem. Fats are crucial because they help the body absorb vitamins and antioxidants, create vital hormones, contribute to healthy immune system, maintain healthy skin and hair, and a variety of other important things (Mastin, 34). However, low fat or fat free foods are to be avoided because they are mostly empty calories. One of the best examples of empty calories is low fat or fat free milk. Calcium is one of the most important minerals a dancer can consume. Because dancers tend to skip high-fat milk to keep their low body fat percentages, the body tends to take calcium from the bones to use it for important functions such as allowing muscles to contract, blood to clot, and nerves to send messages (Scioscia, 63). The body has to have the calcium for these mandatory functions, and it will take it from the bones in necessary. Dancers, and most Americans, tend to drink reduced fat or skim milk to get their calcium, but calcium cannot be absorbed into the system unless the milk contains the natural unique fats that are in raw or whole milk (Bergeson). Thus, drinking reduced fat milk is nearly pointless, and drinking skim milk is as good as drinking white colored water.

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Because of this, dancers who do not drink their real milk are at a higher risk of bone deterioration. With this in mind, dancers should be careful to consume the right fats: natural fats wont be stored; theyll be burned and absorbed to create energy and nutrition. Unneeded fats are the ones that are stored on the body for extra fuel and warmth. Fried food, butter, and oily meats are examples of the wrong fats. Avocado, nuts, olive oil, and other unsaturated fat (liquid at room temperature) are extremely important and wont make a person fat. Protein is crucial for dancers, but they tend to get too much of it. They should get between 10-20% which equates to about 1.4-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (Clarkson). This is enough to replenish the glucose levels in the muscle and provide phosphorus, but not enough to keep dancers from absorbing their calcium. Weve already seen how important water is. However, many dancers will find themselves dehydrated. One of the most important reasons dancers need water is because of the blood water concentration. If the dancer is dehydrated, their blood becomes more concentrated, making it more difficult for the heart to pump, and slower to provide oxygen and nutrition to the body, thereby inhibiting performance. Weighing in and out before and after working out is a good procedure to regulate hydration, as recommended by the USADA. Specifically, they recommend three cups of water should be consumed for every pound lost after the workout. Logically this would be difficult for dancers as they probably dont carry a scale in their dance bags. Many dancers regulate their hydration levels by checking their urine: a pale yellow or clear indicates hydration, a darker yellow indicates dehydration. Dancers should aim for full hydration, and as clear urine as possible, because of the degree to which they work and the rate at which they become dehydrated. They should drink gulps of water every 15-20 minutes rather than sipping

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slowly, as the body will absorb the water better that way. Dancers should begin their water replenishing early in their workout, as thirst is a sign of current dehydration, not a signal that dehydration is coming. Cold fluids take more energy to absorb because the body has to heat it up before absorbing it, so dancers who are trying to burn extra calories should consider drinking cold or ice water. Body fat is crucial, especially for women. About 3% of a humans weight protects vital organs (Mastin, 82). Women have slightly more vital fat (approximately 5-9%), mainly around the hips and breasts. This fat is crucial in order for women to produce estrogen, important for hormonal balance and menstruation. Dancers should have a little bit of stored fat, because fatsoluble vitamins and minerals can be stored in them so that they dont have to be consumed every day, ensuring vitamin absorption can be somewhat stable. Mastin claims 12-14% body fat is required for basic functions and a healthy body, and that dancers lie between 11-21% (83). All things considering, dancers are fine on their body fat percentages: they just need to know that they can maintain it by eating the right foods, not by starving themselves or eating the wrong foods. There is nothing wrong with young dancers working hard to achieve flawless technique and perfect body that is required to make it in the professional worldhowever young dancers under the age of 16 need to remember that the food they eat today will hugely influence their bodies twenty to thirty years from now. They have to get enough calcium, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and water. Depletion of any of these could cause injuries or disease later in life. Young dancers should always remember that until they hit the professional world, they should not focus too much on their body fat percentage. With this in mind they should not allow it to get out of hand, and if they are genetically prone to having a higher body fat percentage they

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should practice from a younger age how to keep it under control, but they should not stress over it and worry to be extremely thin until they absolutely need to. Intense stress at a young age can damage mental health, which could lead to a variety of stress-related diseases. Being aware of this will allow for healthier bodies in the long run, and a possibly prolonged career.

The Experiment
Is it possible for dancers to get their required daily nutrition but still keep their weight down at a low enough number to be able to dance? I know it is, because I tried it. The only true way to burn extra fat and to lower body fat percentage is to eat all the required nutrients, vitamins, minerals, get adequate water, and boost the metabolism. Personally I have a somewhat slow metabolism. I could easily eat two regular sized meals every day and function adequately. However after starting this experiment, I was able to stimulate my metabolism and drop my body fat percentage from 17.2 to 14.8 in 16 days. The secret was to mix a little of the advice from dancers, athletes, and nutritionists to create a balance that made sense and worked. I maintained a food journal for three weeks and regulated my diet to attempt to hit 60-70% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and as little fat as possible, avoiding fried food all together. I ate five to seven small meals a day, drank extensive water, and exercised as often as my school schedule allowed. I did not have the same weight as a dancer because I'm taller than most of the men, and don't dance or exercise as many hours a day as they do. My lowest weight was 122, my height being five feet, eight and a half inches. However, since ballet is not an aerobic exercise, I got about the same amount of aerobic cross training as a ballet dancer might participate in. I ran between one and two miles a day, and occasionally switched to riding a stationary bike if my knee injury was keeping me from running that morning.

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I also did Pilates conditioning three to five times a week, and did four to five ballet classes a week, each class lasting an hour to three hours depending on my schedule for the day. Aside from a steady drop in weight and body fat, I found I slept better at night, had more energy throughout the day, and the calcium deficiency in my fingernails was restored (due to drinking whole or reduced fat milk with every breakfast, six days a week). As I consumed less and less sugar I found foods that had once tasted bland tasted stronger, as I was more sensitive to the natural flavors in natural foods, such as hummus, rice, beans, spinach, and potatoes. There is plenty of research to support the concept of metabolism boosting. But the question is not will it work, the question is will it work for dancers? How can a dancer fit those five to seven meals into their schedule? Is it really wise to only eat strawberries before a three hour rehearsal? Won't eating between classes cause cramps? Does food sitting in the stomach make dancers feel heavier and keep them from jumping high? Many questions can be posed, and the easiest answer is probably. But when an individual changes their eating habits, the body does eventually adjust to the new schedule and compensate for it, as long as it is a regular change. Some of these earlier posed questions must be answered by the individual dancer. But for the most part, as long as a dancer eats directly after dancing and an hour or more before starting again, they won't have cramps or heaviness. These are small meals: a half a sandwich and some water, or three strawberries and some yogurt with wheat germ. The meals are not meant to fill the dancer up: they're meant to re-load the energy levels and keep the metabolism going all day long. Some dancers may need to eat high amounts of carbohydrates and protein in the early part of the day for immediate energy, and eat the foods that don't give as much energy but are

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still required for a balanced diet later in the day, after the energy has gotten a chance to be built up. Other dancers may find that they have no problem dancing on strawberries first thing in the morning. The key to balancing the diet is to balance each week and each day within the week, not necessarily each meal. Sometimes its a good idea to eat mostly carbs before a class, or mostly protein before a long day of rehearsals or a performance. But at the end of the week, and at the end of the days within that week, as long as a balance has been reached, the body will still be fine. Weekends or days off are a great time to catch up on eating those foods that were put aside throughout the week, reload on fat soluble vitamins and minerals, and get lots of fruits and vegetables.

I am hoping to repeat the experiment section of this study on more dancers in the future, carefully monitoring nutrition, body fat, and exercise to see more detailed results. It may be difficult for dancers to adjust to this routine, but it will not be impossible. If dancers can manage to drop their body fat percentages low enough to hit their target weights but still get all their daily nutrition, they will experience more energy, overall better performance, and a prolonged career.

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American Ballet Theatre. The Healthy Dancer: ABT Guidelines for Dancer Health. Macfadden Performing Arts Media, Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc., 2008. Print. 1 April 2011. Bergeson, Laine. Why Whole Milk Is The Healthiest Choice. Experience Life. 28 January 2009. Web. 17 April 17, 2011. <> Chmelar, Robin D. and Fitt, Sally S. Diet for Dancers. Princeton Book Company, 1990. Print. 1 April 2011. Clarkson, Priscilla. Fueling the Dancer. International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. 2003-2005. Web. 1 April 2011. Jarrett, Sara. Eat Smart: Optimize Your Performance With Good Nutrition. Pointe Magazine, 2007, 8.4. Print. 17 April 2011. Jarrett, Sara. Renewable Energy: Eat Regular Meals for Continued Long-Term Success. Pointe Magazine, 2008, 9.2. Print. 17 April 2011. Loizou, Stephanie. Control Mechanisms: How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Metabolism? Pointe Magazine. 2006, 7.2. Print. 17 April 2011. Mastin, Zerlina. Nutrition for the Dancer. Dance Books Ltd, 2009. Print. 17 April 2011. Scioscia, Marie Elena. Standing Tall: Eat Well for Strong Bones That Can Mean a Longer and Healthier Dance Career. Pointe Magazine, 2007, 8.1. Print. 17 April 2011. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Optimal Dietary Intake. USADA, 2010. Print. 1 April 2011.

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Ally Wagner. Registered dietitian. Masters in Nutrition, University of Cincinnati Denise Barratt, registered dietitian/college professor. MS Saint Louis University, Nutrition & Dietetics, BS Nutrition, University of Missouri.
Gabrielle Revlock, Choreographer, Dancer, Fine arts admin at Dance USA. BA Vassar College

Gregory Holt, Program Associate at Dance USA. Bachelor, Anton Bruckner Private University Kim Wilkerson, Diabetics Educator/Dietician. BS in Home Economics, Texas Tech University Susan Bogardus, Dietetics Educator at Western Carolina University. MS, PhD-UK Vanessa Laws, Ballet Dancer/Soloist with Eugene Ballet. BFA in Dance Performance and Education from The Boston Conservatory 2 Anonymous interviews