Veganism for dancers

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Is a vegan diet compatible with the high nutrition needs of dance? KAREN VAN ULZEN finds out.


Veganism is on the rise. Many people, particularly young people, are adopting a completely animal-free diet in recognition of the cruelty to animals and the harm to the environment caused by the farming and manufacturing of animal products. They are passionate about changing the world-wide system of killing animals for food and replacing it with a purely plant-based alternative diet.

In the dance world, the most famous vegan of all is probably Sylvie Guillem, former international ballet star turned PETA ambassador, but there are other dancers who have declared themselves vegans, such as Yosvani Ramos (now in the Colorado Ballet) and Robbie Fairchild (Jerrie Mulligan in An American in Paris).

These dancers show it is possible, then, to maintain a vegan diet and take in enough nutrition for their energy and nutritional needs. Nonetheless, removing two such fundamental food groups – meat and dairy – is obviously a radical departure from the average diet. Anyone with the highly physical occupation like a dancer already requires a supercharged nutritional intake, so how can a vegan diet be managed?

First, let’s be clear we are talking about a true vegan diet – that is, no animal products whatsoever. No dairy, eggs, fish, honey or any other form of meat, gelatine, or even wine that has been filtered through animal-derived agents (and for many this restriction also applies to what they wear, such as leather). This obviously means that there are fewer quick-and-easy sources of easy nutrition. Veganism can still provide the necessary nutrition but it needs a lot more time, preparation and care than the average diet.

Joanna Shinewell is the National Dietitian for Tennis Australia as well as the High Performance Dietitian for Collingwood Football Club. She regularly advises dancers at her private practice – young dancers in particular. She says a vegan diet has the welcome benefit of providing a rich and varied source of plant nutrition, something all dietitians would advise for good health. However, “it will not provide the necessary nutrients if by being vegan you mean you just remove the meat from your plate”.

There are four nutrients in particular which can become deficient in a vegan diet.

One is protein, necessary for muscle growth and repair. No dancer wants to suffer a muscle injury, let alone take months to recover, so a high protein intake is important. Protein exists in a “complete form” in meat, eggs and dairy foods. Plant-based foods, however, with only a few exceptions, contain only limited amounts of protein and protein-containing plants need to be combined with other protein-containing plants to create the complete proteins that the body needs. Eating a pulse, like lentils, with rice, is one example of good protein combining. However, some combinations are better than others, so Shinewell recommends that professional advice should be sought.

Other nutrients at risk in a vegan diet are the “micronutrients”: iron and B12, both of which are essential to dancers.

Iron carries oxygen to the muscles and muscles require oxygen for exercise. Women in particular need to keep up their iron intake because they are already more prone to iron deficiency through their menstrual periods. Iron is plentiful in both animal and plant foods, but the iron in plant foods isn’t absorbed as easily as the iron in meat. For example, 100g of spinach contains 2.7 mg of iron versus 2.6 mg found in 100g of meat but only 1.4% of iron from spinach is absorbed, while 20% of iron from beef is absorbed.


The good news is that taking Vitamin C with iron helps improve the uptake.

The hardest nutrient to gain from a vegan diet is B12, which is hard to find outside of animal foods. Some commercial foods are fortified with Vitamin B12 (such as breakfast cereals) but vegans should take supplements, which are readily available.

Overall, the main nutritional challenge is getting enough energy, which can be difficult if living on just fruit and veg. Vegans need to ensure they eat plenty of grains, cereals, nuts, seeds and legumes, which all provide plenty of good fats and carbohydrates.

Even so, and even with the greatest diligence, just getting enough nutrients into your body with veganism can be a challenge. In the worst case scenario, the result can be REDS: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport syndrome. Simply put, this is a condition where the body is not taking in enough energy to meet the demands placed on it by the amount of exercise being performed. It can result in a host of symptoms, such as loss of periods and excessive fatigue.

Shinewell says that a large proportion of her dancer patients with REDS have developed the condition as a result of their attempt to eat a vegan diet. “They are not getting enough energy from food in general to match the amount of energy associated with their dancing. REDS is common enough in dancers anyway, as they are they are concerned about having the type of body composition that’s ideal in their mind and, let’s face it, ideal to the industry.”

Her biggest concern is with adolescents. “Some of the people who are coming to me haven’t even started [physically] developing, and if they start restricting their intake at that age the issue is the long-term health. That’s my biggest concern – they have to get through those developing years without doing any damage.”

For any dancer, student or professional, a vegan diet needs discipline and commitment. Most commercially prepared food, restaurant dining or takeaway is off the table; most meals have to be prepared by the consumer from scratch. Shopping becomes a major expedition, reading the fine print on every container. Yes, more vegan readymade foods are coming onto the market, but they are still limited in availability. If you are on tour, finding a meal that will meet all your dietary requirements could be difficult.

A final word: veganism is a way of life, a moral and political stance: it is more than a diet. It requires complete philosophical commitment, belief and discipline. If you are considering a becoming a vegan as a way of changing your body shape or improving your health and fitness, there are much easier ways to go about it. Speak to a professional dietitian or nutritionist before making any radical changes to your diet. 

Joanna Shinewell is a Melbourne-based nutritionist and has BA BSc Honours in exercise physiology, a Masters in dietetics and clinical nutrition services, and specialises in sports.


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