Protein for Dancers: Debunking Myths About This Star Macronutrient

June 30, 2022

For active people like dancers and athletes, when it comes to the three macronutrients in food—protein, carbohydrates and fat—protein often receives the spotlight. And there’s no denying all the good it does for dancers. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, support anabolic growth and play a key role in the maintenance of strong muscle and bone tissue. Protein even supports the production of enzymes and antibodies needed for a working metabolism and strong immune system.

But this glowing review also comes with misconceptions. First, it is possible to consume too much protein, even for dancers following vegan or vegetarian diets. Eating excessive amounts of protein can lead to dehydration, along with increased metabolic burden on your bones and kidneys. Muscle recovery is also limited if you’re overly focused on eating foods rich in protein, instead of consuming them as part of an overall balanced diet. Calorie-restrictive and low-carb eating plans impair the body’s ability to both absorb and utilize protein.

As with any food and nutrient, it is possible to consume too much, even for dancers following vegan or vegetarian diets. Eating excessive amounts of protein-rich foods and supplements can cause dancers to miss opportunities for other nourishing ingredients, particularly fruits, veggies, fibrous grains and foods rich in heart-healthy fats. And while the research is mixed, diets high in protein may worsen kidney function in those who present with medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. There have been past speculations surrounding the risk of dehydration with high-protein diets, despite the evidence not actually supporting this. However, it’s important to realize that these studies are limited and inconclusive for dancer populations.

Muscle recovery is also limited if you’re overly focused on eating a high-protein diet, instead of one that is more balanced. Glycogen is an important source of energy that is stored in your muscles. Foods rich in carbohydrates replenish muscle glycogen. Additionally, calorie-restrictive eating plans can result in muscle breakdown, impeding a dancer’s strength and overall performance. 

To understand how dancers can benefit better from protein, let’s unpack some common myths behind this macronutrient.

Protein Myth No. 1: Dancers should only prioritize protein.

An overhead shot of two people passing a bowl of greens and chicken skewers above a full spread of colorful food.
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When compared to the general population, dancers and athletes alike require more protein to support a higher degree of muscle growth and repair. But specific recommendations are limited, since most of the research remains exclusive to the sports community. Because dancers are vulnerable to perfectionism and disordered eating, tracking macros (the controlling process of counting how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat you’re consuming) is highly discouraged by dietitians. As noted earlier, high-protein diets displace opportunities to get in other nutrients—most notably carbohydrates, which are the body’s main fuel source. This can be especially detrimental to dancers who are already prone to energy deficiency. And when you implement rigid rules around meals, food shifts from being a source of joy to a source of stress.

Debunked: Instead of aiming for a specific amount of protein, approach meals with the mindset of balance: The goal is to incorporate one or two sources of protein alongside foods rich in both carbohydrates and fat. Aim for consistency rather than packing in as much protein as possible. Pair a serving of chicken or tofu with wild rice and sautéed veggies. The next time you make toast, top it with scrambled eggs or hummus. Incorporating a variety of foods abundant in nutrients like protein, fat and fiber will also promote feelings of fullness between meals and snacks.

Protein Myth No. 2: It’s harder for vegan and vegetarian dancers to meet their body’s protein needs.

Colorful bowl of quinoa, tofu, chickpeas and a variety of vegetables.
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There are two main sources of protein in the human diet. Animal-based 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 efficiently utilize for anabolic growth. In comparison, plant-based foods that contain protein, such as legumes and grains, are considered “incomplete,” since, on their own, they do not contain all of these amino acids.

Debunked: Despite this, vegan and vegetarian dancers can obtain all essential amino acids from their diet if they prioritize abundance and variety. This means that your meals and snacks should include a spectrum of plant foods, so that when they’re incorporated throughout your meal plan, they’ll provide all of the essential amino acids. Quinoa, soy and ancient grains, like farro and amaranth, are also excellent sources and considered complete proteins.

Here are a few helpful additions to any dancer’s diet, no matter if you eat meat or not:

  • Edamame beans are an excellent source of iron and calcium and make for a great between-meal snack or pre-dinner appetizer.
  • Pseudo-cereals like quinoa and buckwheat offer up to 8 grams of protein per serving. This is comparable to most animal-based protein foods!
  • Pepitas are best known for their magnesium, but they’re also a rich source of protein.
  • Chickpeas are also rich in iron and calcium, two nutrients that benefit a dancer’s bone health and blood health.
  • Almonds make a great snack because they’re high in vitamin E, copper and magnesium.
  • Chia seeds are also rich in calcium.
  • Lentils are versatile and high in fiber, which helps to support long-term energy and digestive regularity.

Protein Myth No. 3: Dancers need to include protein supplements in their meal plans.

Sporty young Asian female drinking a protein drink while checking her phone and wearing earphones.
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For some dancers juggling busy schedules, protein bars and powders might be helpful as quick and convenient options to promote muscle recovery after long classes and rehearsals. But supplements are expensive and not needed if consistent meals and snacks can be consumed throughout a dancer’s day. Additionally, evidence does not support the use of protein supplements to improve performance among dancers.

Debunked: Diet culture conditions society into believing that foods with 20 grams of protein or higher are superior. But dancers can meet their protein needs through food alone, even when their diets are mainly composed of foods not traditionally considered to be “high in protein.” This is especially true for meals that incorporate multiple foods and therefore multiple sources of protein. If you’re concerned about your protein needs, consult with a licensed registered dietitian nutritionist who can help to assess your individual needs.