I'm dropping meat from my diet. What can I eat to replace protein, iron and other nutrients? —Madison
Vegetarian diets definitely have health benefits: They tend to be higher in fiber and lower in saturated fats. But it's not enough to eat a few slices of cheese and say you've gotten your protein for the day. "Vegetarian athletes need to be balanced in their protein, fat and carbohydrate choices so that they're filling and satisfying," says Marie Elena Scioscia, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who works with The Ailey School.
Depending on the type of diet you follow, alternative protein sources can come from dairy products, soy, nuts and eggs. However, Scioscia warns not to overly rely on soy products and cheese. Soy can elevate estrogen levels in the body, which, according to Scioscia, may increase risk for breast cancer in certain individuals. Avoid eating more than three servings of soy per day. And since cheese is often loaded with saturated fat, stick with low- or non-fat varieties.
Other plant-based proteins include seeds, quinoa, spirulina and beans. "Plant protein doesn't digest as well as animal protein," Scioscia says, so she recommends increasing your intake and combining plant proteins with other foods to get all the essential amino acids to aid absorption (for instance, eating rice and beans together). A good guideline is 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight—so a 120-pound dancer should eat 82 grams of protein daily.
You can find iron in foods like fortified cereal and bread, spinach, apricots, prunes, raisins, nuts and seeds. Vitamin C helps increase iron absorption, Scioscia says, so cook veggies with a splash of lemon juice or sip orange juice while you eat. As for calcium, milk, fortified soy milk, fortified almond milk and yogurt are the most obvious choices. Vegetables such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens and Brussels sprouts are also excellent sources. "However, calcium will be bound up in fiber, so the amount your body can use is cut in half," Scioscia warns. If necessary, you can supplement with 250 mg of calcium citrate or calcium carbonate to reach your daily goal of 1,000 mg.
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