Why Are Dancers and Gymnasts Told to Diet?

By June 29, 2012

Exactly how much exercise is necessary to maintain healthy weight? Is the “chart weight” really the healthy weight for everybody? I am asking because it really perplexes me when I hear that professional dancers and gymnasts are always pressured to diet. Why should they, considering the incredible amount of exercise they get every day? If they still find it necessary to reduce, just how much food do we normal people really need? And how much do we need to exercise to use it up? I read articles on nutrition that talk about how much we need to eat to provide our bodies with all the necessary nutrients. And side by side with those articles there are celebrities saying how very little they can allow themselves to eat every day, and how many calories they have to burn, to stay at their present weight. Am I to understand that following right nutrition would lead most people into being overweight and in fact one must choose: either eat healthy or be slim? I admit I am really confused. – Marzena

Dear Marzena:

You are asking some excellent questions! The problem is not with you; it is the media messages and many celebrities that are causing the confusion.

Many of us are also perplexed (and exasperated) by all the pressure put on dancers and gymnasts to diet. They are incredibly fit and strong with all the exercise they do, yet are told they also need to be thin. Unfortunately, coaches, dance teachers and judges often expect and try to make everyone look the same, and this is totally unrealistic. That is why dancers, gymnasts and figure skaters are at such high risk for eating disorders (as well as osteoporosis and other health problems). The world is full of a diversity of body types and shapes, with only a small percentage of people designed to be very thin.

As for the celebrities, so many of them are terrible role models when it comes to body image and nutrition. Thinness is highly valued in Hollywood and fashion, so if an actress or model isn’t naturally thin, they often practice disordered eating to reach a weight that is unnatural for their body types. Many of them consistently ignore their bodies’ hunger cues. Yes, eating well would cause these women to gain some weight, but in their cases, it would be a healthy gain—to reach what is a naturally healthy weight for them.

Regarding your question about weight charts—they can be misleading. They don’t distinguish between muscle and fat and don’t measure a person’s level of fitness. So, a fuller-figured athlete may worry that she is too heavy when in fact she is very healthy, or an inactive thin person who eats poorly might think that she is fine when in reality, she is not healthy. Weight charts are just one tool used by health professionals, but they are imperfect and meant to be part of a total assessment.

Stick with your instincts regarding these issues. Avoid magazines and TV shows that are promoting unnatural thinness. Eat healthy and stay active, and don’t compare your body to others. Help be one of the voices for reason and change.

Thanks for writing in!