Considering Going Vegan? Here’s What Dancers Should Know

December 21, 2023

Federica Bona, a member of the Czech National Ballet, began following a vegetarian diet when she was 11 years old. At 13, she became vegan. She was deeply concerned about animal welfare, and later felt veganism was also better for her own health and the health of the planet. When she became a professional dancer—and discovered the demands of a performing career—she wanted to make sure her body was nourished to its full potential. “The amount of hours you spend dancing onstage and in the studio cannot be compared to when you are a student,” she says. “I have three or four performances every week. And some of these, like Swan Lake, can be really hard for the body.”  

A number of dancers have turned to vegan diets for ethical or environmental reasons—or to potentially enhance their performance. Bona says she feels healthier and more energized since pivoting to only plant-based foods. But can you get enough nutrients from plants to dance your best? And does a vegan diet really improve performance?

Federica Bona smiles towards the camera while backstage during a ballet performance. Sh wears a white Romantic-style tutu with filmy off-the-shoulder sleeves and a crown of white flowers in her dark hair, which is pulled back into a bun. She is shown standing from the thighs up, clasping her hands in front of her.
Federica Bona, a member of the Czech National Ballet, has been vegan since the age of 13. Photo by Serghei Gherciu, courtesy Bona.

“The challenge is to actually get enough overall calories,” cautions Marie Scioscia, registered dietitian, founder of Cinch Nutrition, and author of Eat Right Dance Right. Scioscia says that vegan and vegetarian dancers have to eat more volume to get sufficient amounts of nutrients that are essential for fueling their bodies.

Scioscia explains that humans need all three macronutrients. “Good-quality carbohydrates, like whole-grain breads, potatoes, pasta, fruits, and vegetables” are the cornerstone of any vegan diet, she says—without them, you will lack energy and focus. Combine these with protein—like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, tofu, or tempeh—and a healthy fat, such as avocado or a handful of nuts, to maintain a steady flow of energy throughout your day.

Limiting your intake of animal foods such as red meat, eggs, and dairy has been shown to benefit overall health and longevity. In addition, plant-based foods have specific advantages for dancers. “A plant-based diet done right with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—not just a bunch of cookies—can absolutely reduce muscle soreness and promote recovery from day to day,” says Emily Harrison, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Nutrition for Great Performances. Although there is not enough evidence that a vegan diet enhances athletic performance, scientific studies have shown that consuming more plant-based foods improves digestion and reduces the risk of long-term disease like heart problems and diabetes.

Balancing Act

Be mindful of what you put into your body, says Harrison. If you cut dairy, for example, replace it with other good sources of calcium, like beans, greens, seeds, or a soy yogurt. She also advises eating more frequently—instead of eating three meals a day, divide those meals up into five or six. “The more frequent the eating pattern, the better the energy, the better the performance,” she says. Maintaining your energy balance also reduces the risk of stress fractures and other injuries.

Bone health is especially important in growing dancers, says Scioscia, who works as a registered dietitian at The Ailey School. Younger dancers need enough calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D to lay down bone, and supplements may be necessary to fill any gaps. Dancers should also watch for iron and vitamin B-12 deficiencies and ensure they get omega-3 fatty acids.

Be Flexible

If you are considering going vegan, work with your doctor or an appropriate dietitian. “There’s no one perfect way of eating for each person,” says Scioscia. “It is important to be mindful whenever you make a dietary change, so you don’t create a nutrient deficiency.”

All dancers—vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore—should be willing to adapt. “You might eat very differently during Nutcracker season than you would eat off-season,” says Harrison. “Or you might eat very differently during a summer program than when you’re not dancing and training at the same level of activity.”

Bowls of plant-based protein sources various sizes are shown from above. The bowls are a mix of wooden, ceramic, and glass and contain almonds, cashews, lentils, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, among others.
Combine carbohydrates with protein—like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, tempeh, tofu—and healthy fats to maintain energy throughout the day. Getty Images.

Being vegan or vegetarian does take a conscious effort and time to plan and prepare meals. Bona took a course in plant-based nutrition for athletes to learn more about getting the right nutrients and now has a YouTube channel called “The Vegan Ballerina” that includes her favorite recipes, including lentil soup, which she says she makes at least once a week. “It’s my go-to recipe when I don’t have time to cook.”  

Although she briefly tried using a meal-planning app, Bona says it started having a negative effect on her mental health. “Now I eat intuitively,” she says. “I try to not focus too much on counting calories or nutrients, but to listen to my body and its needs.”