Vegan nutrition for dancers
A dancer’s nutritional needs are higher than that of the average person. This is especially true for the adolescent dancer whose growth needs must be taken into account alongside their physical needs. And with the spectrum of plant-based lifestyles picking up momentum in the mainstream, it can be tempting for dancers to trial anything from veganism or vegetarianism to #MeatlessMonday for the purpose of improving their health and/or performance.
Veganism, in particular, is often depicted alongside “wellness” trends with dairy-free desserts, vegan snack swaps, and veggie-filled meals. And while we can all benefit from adding more plants to our plates, knowing whether or not a vegan diet is doable for a dancer depends on several factors.
This article is not meant to sway a dancer in any one direction. In fact, I am confident that a healthy lifestyle can be achieved with either a vegan diet or a non-vegan diet. But because of the restrictive nature of vegan diets, dancers must consider the practicality of maintaining an all-foods-fit mentality whilst still partaking in such a lifestyle. It is surely doable, but a few considerations should be addressed beforehand.
Vegan Dancers: What Are The Concerns?
Veganism Can be A Mask for Disordered Eating
The benefits of adding more plants to our plates are vast and I’ve previously written about how to do this. A vegan diet, however, is not necessarily a “healthier” diet. It should also never equate to a diet that is low in calories or low in fat and more often than not, dancers are attracted to veganism in their pursuit of control and/or their desire to attain an unrealistic body aesthetic. But using veganism as a mask for restrictive (disordered) eating will not only risk your physical performance. It will also sacrifice your emotional and mental wellbeing. If your reason for turning to veganism stems from dieting and/or is causing you major food anxiety, then you’ll need to reassess ASAP.
With that said, vegan diets don’t have to be restrictive nor disordered. In fact, research suggests that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle.” Proper planning is not only encouraged but also manageable. Today’s food landscape offers a wide variety of options to support vegan swaps. To learn more about how to do this, consider my ebook for Plant-Based Lifestyles.
Nutrient Deficiency and Bone Health
There are also concerns about nutrient deficiencies. The body’s access to vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, protein, omega 3 fatty acids, and iron is particularly limited when relying on only plant-based foods. It has also been argued that veganism might negatively impact bone health (though any associations between veganism and bone health are limited as poor nutrient intake from ANY diet, not just veganism, can weaken bones).
But all dancers, even non-vegans, are at risk for nutrient deficiencies from limited access (whether intentional or unintentional) to a balanced diet. Whether vegan or non-vegan, the vitamins, and minerals mentioned above can be consumed in adequate amounts using a food-first approach. Focusing on variety and abundance is key.
Food isn’t just about nutrients and calories. Satisfaction is essential to our daily living. You can eat all of the veggies you want and physically fill your stomach, but if you’re not feeling satisfied, you might wind up on a cycle of restricting and overeating. Finding enjoyment and satisfaction from your meals is just as important as optimizing your meal’s nutrient density.
Despite these concerns, dancers can still thrive both physically and mentally while following a vegan lifestyle. It just takes a bit more work, self-reflection, and proper planning. Focusing on abundance and variety is key to preventing the potential for nutrient deficiencies (read about here). But how can you assess whether your vegan diet is also supporting your goals of food freedom?
Know Your Intentions
Choosing a vegan diet for reasons like weight loss, “health,” and/or for the purpose of manipulating your body shape/weight/size is both dangerous and unsustainable. In fact, veganism can be seen less as a diet and more as a lifestyle built upon values and ethics relating to how humans treat other living beings, such as animals. But while we should all treat others, whether that be humans or animals, with compassion and love, choosing a vegan lifestyle does not make one dancer morally superior to another. To ensure that you’re reasoning for choosing veganism is helping and not hindering you, assess your INTENTIONS:
DON’T follow a vegan lifestyle if:
- You’re looking to be “healthier”
- You’re looking to change your body weight/shape/size
- Your peer is doing it… and you feel competitive
- You think it’s a “superior” way of living (cause it’s not)
DO consider a vegan lifestyle if:
- You’ve become increasingly interested in environmental sustainability
- You’re concerned about animal welfare
- You follow vegan-style religious and/or cultural traditions
Remember it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can support environmental sustainability and animal welfare without going strict vegan. That’s up to you to decide and there should be no judgment surrounding your decision. If you are choosing veganism, then I encourage you to work alongside a dietitian. This is to ensure that your daily menu not only supports your body’s physical and metabolic needs but also supports your mental wellbeing. To help you get started, I created an ebook that dives into everything you need to know about plant-based lifestyles. You can access it here.
What’s the research?
There isn’t much research on veganism and dancers, but we know that vegetarian athletes are at higher risk for the nutrient concerns mentioned above. It’s also important to remember that vegan athletes might be more susceptible to bone-related injuries like stress fractures and female dancers with delayed menarche (a fancy word for your first period) are particularly at higher risk for low bone density.
However, we also know that a well-planned vegan and/or vegetarian diet is doable at any life stage and the same holds true for athletes. Though the research doesn’t specifically address dancers, it is safe to say that a dancer’s physical nutritional needs are comparable to those of an athlete. But a dancer’s susceptibility to disordered eating makes it even more critical that, if choosing a vegan lifestyle, one consult with a dietitian to ensure their diet also supports their mental wellbeing.