Article: Vegan Diets for Dancers and Athletes, Part 1

Category: , , , , / 6/12/2013
I recently started taking a lot of dance classes - sometimes up to ten a week - including ballet, hip hop, jazz, and tap. Shows like Dance Academy and Bunheads rekindled my love of dance and, with it, a desire to continue the small amount of training I had begun as an adult. Although I'd never taken dance or even participated in sports as a kid, I've been working out regularly with dance DVDs such as the Tracy Anderson method, so I didn't think it would be a big deal to add some more physical activity into my life. Boy, was I wrong.
Image: Cillian Storm via Flickr

With my increased fitness regimen, I found that my normal diet wasn't cutting it anymore. I began to change when and how I ate, as well as changing the ratio of carbohydrates, fats, protein, and nutrients to suit my needs. I did a lot of research and found that vegans and non-vegans alike often offered the same advice when it came to diets for athletes. Below are some of the top suggestions.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a registered personal trainer, dietitian or medical professional. Please consult a doctor if you are experiencing any health issues or are considering an increase in physical activity.

  • Eat plenty of lean proteins. Beans and rice alone are great, but if you want to build muscle mass, you may want to add more protein to your diet. Personally, I don't feel so well if I eat all soy (especially soy protein isolate), so I mix it up by getting protein from a variety of sources. Some of my favorites are protein powders (hemp, rice, and pea), tempeh, tofu, quinoa, nuts and nut butters, beans, seitan, and occasionally meat substitutes (from brands like Tofurky and Harmony Valley).
  • Get your fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables are a great way to pack in nutrition, often for only a small number of calories. While some weight-loss diets advocate cutting fruit or certain vegetables (such as white potatoes), I follow the "everything in moderation" principle. Some of my favorite fruits and veggies are blueberries, strawberries, grapes, bananas, mixed greens, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, green beans, and sweet potatoes.
  • High-quality carbohydrates are your friends. After a workout, fueling your body with the right foods can lead to a more speedy and effective recovery. Most post-workout bars and drinks include some carbohydrates to help with this process. Many athletes eat carbohydrates at at least 1-2 meals a day. Popular options include rice, millet, quinoa, whole wheat breads and pastas, oatmeal and fruits. However, if you want to lose weight or maintain a lean frame, you may want to consider taking a smaller portion of carbohydrates and replacing it with vegetables or fresh fruit.
  • Cut back on white flours and processed sugars. Have you ever eaten an entire bread basket and still felt hungry? I'm not proud of it, but I have. White breads, regular pasta, and other "white" foods are often high in calories are low on nutrition compared to their whole-grain counterparts. If you don't already, swap wheat for white and you'll see a difference in your waistline. Similarly, watch out for processed sugars. Many organic cereals, dairy-free yogurts, and other "healthy" foods may be loaded with sugar. If you've got a real sweet tooth like me, try unsweetened vanilla milk on low-sugar cereal, add frozen blueberries to oatmeal, or even try a little fresh fruit as dessert.
  • Drink plenty of water. Whenever I get my heart rate up, I tend to sweat. While I think exercise is wonderful, I try to make sure I get extra water after a workout to avoid dehydration. Water is also recommended with many diets, as drinking water helps you feel more full and it is a great no-calorie alternative to filtered juices and sodas.
  • Monitor and balance your other nutrients. Whether you plan to be active or not, it's often a good idea to take a blood test annually at your health care provider. I recently wrote about vitamins for vegans, but one especially important one for active people is electrolytes. Sweating and other activities can result in loss of salt and other electrolytes, such as potassium. Refuel with bananas and make sure you are getting the proper amount of sodium for your body. Some people may need to actively reduce their sodium intake (often people with genetically high blood pressure or those who eat a lot of processed foods) while others may need to increase it. Also, be sure to include healthy sources of fats in your diet, such as avocados. For more information, please consult a registered dietitian.
Image: SweetOn Veg via Flickr
Recommended resources:
  • Ballet Beautiful - Written by the former ballerina who trained Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan, this book contains both a fitness program and solid diet advice. The program itself shares common elements with the Tracy Anderson Method, but I appreciate how author Mary Helen Bowers has a more practical approach to food. While it isn't strictly vegan, she offers options for plant-based dancers, even if you have a busy schedule.
  • Thrive and Thrive Foods - Former Iroman triathlete and Vega creator Brendan Brazier offers a very in-depth study of a plant-based diet for athletes. While some of his foods may seem a bit unusual, my favorite smoothie recipe is inspired by one in Thrive. Thrive Foods includes more recipes.
  • Vegan athlete case studies from The Four Hour Body - Although these were not included with the original book, these "outtakes" are available online. I have embraced the "30 in 30" concept (30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking) from this book, and now have morning protein smoothies following Mike Mahler's example of mixing Sun Warrior Rice Protein with pea protein (review here; recipe in an upcoming article).
I also highly recommend "mindful" eating. Taking the time to really taste your food and chew it thoroughly has a wealth of benefits, from feeling fuller faster to better digestion.

Note: This is the first in a three-part series. Click here for meal ideas and here for ways to eat healthy at restaurants and on the go.

Disclosure notice: I am not a registered doctor, dietician, or medical professional. Please consult with a doctor if you are experiencing any health issues or are considering an increase in physical activity. Affiliate links are present in this post. Please verify any claims with the manufacturer, especially if you have any allergies or concerns.

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