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Being green: how vegan dancers can eat smart to stay strong.

Dancers' love-hate relationship with food can make eating a balanced diet a challenge. Add in the decision to become vegan, and it gets even trickier. Being vegan means not eating anything that comes from an animal source, including meat, eggs, milk, honey, and gelatin. It's a decision that usually grows out of a dancer's ethical or religious beliefs. "It can be very healthy if it's done correctly," says Katherine Tallmadge, a Washington, DC, nutritionist who has worked with The Washington Ballet and The Virginia School of the Arts. "But," she warns, "it's not just about eating salads."

Giving up meat and dairy products may have serious consequences unless you find another way to incorporate the nutrients you're skipping. Not getting enough calcium and minerals can increase cramping and injuries. Avoiding entire food groups can deplete your energy level, weaken muscles you are trying to strengthen, and compromise your immune system. So how can dancers make a healthy switch?

ACID TEST

Since dancers exercise constantly and their bone and muscle mass play a role in their health, getting enough protein heads the list. Beans and grains can take the place of meat and dairy, says Brenda Schwarz, nutritionist for the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. "Soy is great because it is a complete protein," she says, noting that it contains all eight amino acids, which are essential building blocks for strong muscles. Tallmadge recommends dancers get about 1/2 gram of protein for every pound of body weight daily, or about 60-68 grams a day for a 120 lb dancer. Too little can pave the way to a loss of bone mass, a condition that can lead to osteoporosis later in life. The only way to detect thinning bones is via a bone scan. "That's why it is especially important for vegan dancers to have regular doctor visits," advises Tallmadge.

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Many dancers already try to stick to "good" carbohydrates. These include whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds make particularly good snacks because they combine protein with Omega-3 fatty acids that protect the heart. Since many whole grains and nuts contain full proteins as well as fiber, B vitamins, iron, and amino acids, a well-balanced vegan diet can boost strength as much as a poor one can deplete it. "I always have energy," says Emily Harper, a 21-year-old New York City dancer and choreographer who became vegan eight years ago. "I think that has to do with what I eat--a lot of raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts."

ONE (OR MORE) A DAY

However, some minerals and vitamins can't be replaced easily. That's where multivitamins come in. Taking one a day that contains calcium, iron, and B12 is another essential element in a vegan dancer's regimen. Vitamin B12 can be found only in animal products, so most nutritionists recommend taking a B12 supplement every day in order to avoid anemia. One alternative can be B12-fortified breakfast cereals, another reason to eat a healthy breakfast every morning.

Schwarz also recommends keeping track of what you eat with a food diary. "If a dancer is cramping up a lot," she says, "it could be that they are not getting enough calcium or potassium, or that they are not drinking enough fluids."

VEGAN FOR LIFE

Once you're used to balancing a vegan diet, eating healthily becomes automatic. "I'm spoiled living in New York because there are so many vegan options," says Harper. "I make sure to get a good mix of fresh foods every day, and I eat lots of spinach, chickpeas, tofu, and soy milk. " At the end of the day, maintaining a strong and healthy dancer's physique comes down to being smart and informed about what you put into, as well as exclude from, your body.

Going green: Vegan snack ideas and products

Local natural foods markets, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods are great places to find vegan foods like buckwheat noodles and organic peanut butter, as well as already prepared vegan meals like tabouleh salad. * Ezekiel Bread, produced by Food For Life, is one of the best whole grain breads on the market. Eat it topped with avocado, salsa, peanut butter, or hurnmus for a nutritious snack before rehearsal. Click on www.foodforlife.com for a store that carries it near you. * When you're going to be dancing for a long period, it pays to prepare vegan snacks ahead. Carrots and hummus, celery and tahini, or bean salads are all great snacks when you're on the go. Check out www.veganlunchbox.com for more recipes. * Since vegans don't use any animal products, including leather and suede, some dancers feel uncomfortable about wearing their usual dance shoes. Alternatives include Cynthia King's vegan ballet slippers (available at www.cynthiakingdance.com), Grishko's custom vegan slippers, or the vegan tap, ballet, and jazz shoes found at www.alternativesoles.com

Lindsay Cowan, a former dancer, is a Washington, DC-based writer.
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Title Annotation:your body
Author:Cowan, Lindsay
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
Words:818
Previous Article:Luis Serrano & Katia Carranza.
Next Article:Advice for dancers.
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