Protein for Dancers: Busting Myths About This Star Macronutrient
For active people like dancers and athletes, when it comes to the three dietary macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and fat – protein is often in the spotlight. And there’s no denying all the good it does to dancers. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, support anabolic growth and play a key role in maintaining strong muscle and bone tissue. The proteins even support the production of enzymes and antibodies necessary for a functioning metabolism and a strong immune system.
But this glowing review also comes with some misconceptions. First, it is possible to consume too much protein, even for dancers following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Eating excessive amounts of protein can lead to dehydration, as well as an increased metabolic load on your bones and kidneys. Muscle recovery is also limited if you focus too much on eating protein-rich foods, instead of consuming them as part of an overall balanced diet. Calorie-restricted, low-carb diets impair the body’s ability to absorb and utilize protein.
To understand how dancers can best benefit from protein, let’s unpack some common myths behind this macronutrient.
Protein Myth #1: Dancers should prioritize protein.
Compared to the general population, dancers and athletes need more protein to support a higher degree of muscle growth and repair. But specific recommendations are limited, as most research remains exclusive to the sports community. Because dancers are vulnerable to perfectionism and eating disorders, tracking macros (the checking process of counting the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you eat) is strongly discouraged by dietitians. High-protein diets displace opportunities for obtaining other nutrients, including carbohydrates, which are the body’s main source of fuel. And when you put in place rigid rules around meals, food goes from being a source of joy to a source of stress.
Demystified: Instead of aiming for a specific amount of protein, approach meals with a balance in mind: the goal is to incorporate one or two sources of protein into carbohydrate- and fat-rich foods. Aim for consistency rather than containing as much protein as possible. Pair a serving of chicken or tofu with wild rice and sautéed vegetables. Next time you make toast, top it with scrambled eggs or hummus. Incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods like protein, fat, and fiber will also promote feelings of fullness between meals and snacks.
Protein Myth #2: It’s harder for vegan and vegetarian dancers to meet their body’s protein needs.
There are two main sources of protein in the human diet. Animal proteins include beef, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish and seafood. These are considered “complete” proteins because they naturally contain a unique variety of amino acids that the body can effectively use for anabolic growth. In comparison, plant-based foods that contain protein, such as legumes and grains, are considered “incomplete” because they alone don’t contain all of these amino acids.
Demystified: Despite this, vegan and vegetarian dancers can get all the essential amino acids from their diet if they prioritize abundance and variety. This means that your meals and snacks should include an array of plant foods so that when incorporated into your meal plan, they provide all of the essential amino acids. Quinoa, soybeans, and ancient grains, such as farro and amaranth, are also excellent sources and are considered complete proteins.
Here are some useful additions to any dancer’s diet, whether you eat meat or not:
- Edamame Beans are an excellent source of iron and calcium and make a great between-meal snack or pre-dinner appetizer.
- Pseudo-cereals like quinoa and buckwheat provide up to 8 grams of protein per serving. This is comparable to most protein foods of animal origin!
- sunflower seeds are best known for their magnesium, but they are also a rich source of protein.
- Chickpeas are also high in iron and calcium, two nutrients that are beneficial to dancers’ bone and blood health.
- Almonds make an excellent snack as they are rich in vitamin E, copper and magnesium.
- chia seeds are also rich in calcium.
- Lenses are versatile and high in fiber, which helps support long-term energy and digestive regularity.
Protein Myth #3: Dancers need to include protein supplements in their meal plans.
For some dancers who juggle busy schedules, protein bars and powders may be justified as quick and convenient options for promoting muscle recovery after long classes and reps. But supplements are expensive and unnecessary if regular meals and snacks can be consumed throughout a dancer’s day.
Demystified: Dietary culture conditions society to believe that foods with 20 grams or more of protein are superior. But dancers can meet their protein needs through food alone, even when their diet is comprised mostly of foods that aren’t traditionally considered “high protein.” This is particularly true for meals that incorporate several foods and therefore several sources of protein. If you are concerned about your protein needs, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you assess your individual needs.