A number of teens are making a statement with what they’re eating—or not eating. They’re going vegan, which means giving up foods that come from animals—that includes all meat, fish, cheese, eggs, milk and butter. Teen dancers who think it’s the right choice should know it’s not necessarily the safest for every body. DS investigates.
Is It Healthy For Dancers?
Isabella Mariani, 15, who takes dance classes at The Chapin School and performed with the National Dance Institute, now follows a vegan diet. Isabella says she feels “healthier, a lot cleaner and more pure. I have more energy, too.” But there are certain factors to consider when going vegan: “Many vegetarians and vegans are missing the veggie part,” says dietician Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In other words, fries might be free of animal products but contain zero nutrients.
Donald Hensrud, MD, nutrition specialist and chair of the Division of Preventive, Occupational, and Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, points out that you’ll need to stick to whole foods (hint: They don’t come in boxes or wrappers). “A lot of packaged foods—like white bread—are processed and have nutrients removed,” he explains.
If you do eat processed foods, you’ll have to read the labels because they often contain hidden ingredients that come from animals. “Forms of dairy, such as whey, casein or lard, pop up in packaged foods like canned refried beans,” warns dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Between 13 and 19, you grow like crazy, so getting the proper nutrition is crucial. And what you eat today doesn’t just influence your body right now; it sets you up for the future. Here are five vegan pitfalls you’ll want to watch out for—and ways to sail past them.
Lack of Calcium: “Bone-building calcium is especially important for dancers, who may be more prone to bone and stress fractures,” says Blatner. You’d have to eat more than seven cups of raw broccoli to get as much calcium as there is in only one cup of milk!
Solution: Girls ages 9 to 18 should shoot for 1,300 mg of calcium a day—find it in broccoli, kale, tofu made with calcium and calcium-fortified soy foods, juices and cereals. Ask your doctor about taking a calcium supplement with magnesium.
Low Calorie Count: As a vegan dancer, “you need to eat more volume in order to get the same amount of calories,” Dr. Hensrud says. You would have to eat 35 cups of green beans to get the same number of calories in a pound of hamburger meat. “Because you’re expending a lot of calories in the dance studio, you need more calories than the average teen, not less.”
Solution: Eat calorie-dense foods, like avocados and dried fruit. Also, eat something starchy at every meal, like whole-wheat varieties of cereal, pasta, bread, rice or potatoes. And don’t forget your nuts and seeds.
Diminished Muscle Tone: “Protein is essential for building and repairing muscles and body tissues,” says Blatner. But vegans don’t eat meat or dairy, which are huge sources of protein.
Solution: Eat nuts, seeds, soy, whole grains, lentils, avocados, olives, peas and kidney, pinto and black beans.
Limited Variety: Every day you need protein from several different foods. “Each source of protein carries its own unique blend of amino acids,” says Farrell. So you can’t replace the protein in all meat with just nuts.
Solution: Mix it up and keep it interesting! Make sure the food on your plate isn’t all one color, and beware of buying one or two items in bulk.
Too Little Fat: Not having enough fat in your diet leads to low body fat, which can influence your hormones and menstrual cycle. Vegans have to get the fat elsewhere—vegan dancers need to compensate even more.
Solution: Eat avocados and nuts; cook with oils.