Teenagers become vegan for a variety of reasons – to improve their health, because of a concern for the environment or animal welfare, or even because they don’t like the taste or texture of animal products. For some teenagers, this is an experiment, and for others it is the beginning of a long-term or life-long commitment. It’s important to take their decisions seriously, but also to make sure that they have a healthy diet and that they can still eat with the family and be part of family meals.
What is a Vegan?
A vegan is someone who has excluded all animal products from his or her diet – not only meat and fish, but eggs, milk and other dairy products and honey – and chooses not to wear leather, fur, silk or wool. To maintain a truly vegetarian diet it’s important to read labels carefully – ingredients like rennet, lanolin, casein, whey and beeswax, amongst others, all are from animal origins.
Getting a Balanced Diet
Because teenagers are still growing its important to make sure that they have a healthy diet. This includes getting enough protein, vitamins and minerals, and avoiding junk food – though chips and crisps cooked in vegetable oil and salted nuts and other snacks are vegan, they are not necessarily health!
Vegans can get protein from pulses, nuts and seeds, and combining foods from these groups (for example, baked beans or peanut butter on wholegrain bread) ensures a good balance of proteins.
A common source of protein for vegans is from soya – this includes soya milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream, tofu (soya bean curd), soya flour (useful to mix into sauces and soups to boost protein levels) and textured vegetable protein (TVP).
Vitamins and Minerals
Fruit and vegetables, especially raw or lightly cooked ones, are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and vegan teenagers should make sure that they are at least getting their five a day, if not more. It is possible to get all the vitamins and minerals required from a balanced diet, but a good quality multivitamin and multimineral supplement that is suitable for vegans and provides the correct RDA (recommended daily amount) of vitamins and minerals is a good piece of nutritional insurance. Don’t take megadoses of any vitamin or mineral – this can be harmful rather than helpful.
Certain vitamins and minerals are key for vegans:
Vitamin B12 can be hard to get from a vegan diet. The easiest sources is from fortified foods including cereals and vegan milk substitutes
It is especially important to make sure that teenage girls get enough iron in their diet. Vegan girls run the risk of not getting enough iron and becoming anaemic, especially once they have started their periods. It is harder to absorb iron from a vegetarian diet than a non-vegetarian diet, and so vegans and vegetarians need to take in more iron-rich food than meat eaters. Vegan iron sources include pulses, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and dark green, leafy vegetables, as well as fortified cereals.
Good levels of calcium, especially for girls, are important to reduce the risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones) in later life. Calcium sources for vegans include fortified vegan dairy substitutes and other foods, nuts and dark green leafy vegetables.
One of the easiest ways for vegan teenagers to get vitamin D is through sun exposure – around 20 minutes two or three times a week.
While eating disorders are no more common in vegetarian and vegan teenagers than in meat-eating teenagers, some teenagers may use a vegan diet as a way to cover up an eating disorder. Keep an eye on any teenagers who seem to be losing weight or finding reasons not to eat healthily.