When your child says, “Mom I want to be a vegan”, alarm bells might start to sound in your head. What if she’s not eating enough protein for his activities? Will she get sufficient iron to support her growing body?
A vegan diet, in summary, excludes all animal products including meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. With these dietary exclusions, parents can naturally become concerned that their vegan child may not get the correct nutrients needed to grow and develop to their full potential.
Children today are in the worst physical shape of any generation in history.
1 in 3 children are overweight.
1 in 5 high school children have abnormal cholesterol levels.
1 in 3 children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in their life.
However, a child who has decided to go vegan gains a measure of protection against these diseases of lifestyle, provided they follow a nutritional balanced vegan diet. BUT is important to highlight that a vegan diet excludes two major food groups which provide valuable sources of protein and nutrients. Children who decide to go vegan without fully understanding how to ensure their nutritional intake is balanced may be at risk for nutritional deficiencies which can affect their growth, development and performance at school or at sports.
When your child follows a vegan diet, there are some important points we as parents need to be aware of although they may not always be applicable to your child:
1. Diet restrictions:
It’s not unusual for adolescents to experiment with different diet restrictions, as they take cues from peer groups or react to other social influences. From a nutritional and health point of view, children can thrive on a carefully planned vegan diet. The emphasis on “carefully planned”.
2. Fashion and trendy:
Unfortunately becoming vegan can sometimes be more about fashion than health. Many children think a vegan diet just means swopping their regular hamburgers for soy burgers. And they end up eating a highly processed and unbalanced diet. Some vegan teens actually refuse to eat vegetables. A medically trained nutritionist in the USA tells the story of university students he was lecturing, responding to a survey where they stated that their vegan go-to meal was French Fries and beer! The key, as we said above, is careful, informed planning.
3. Eating disorders:
Many adolescents struggling with an eating disorder may adopt a vegan diet as another way to impose more food restrictions. They go from vegetarian to vegan and may even claim additional food intolerances and additional vegan restrictions until there’s little left to eat.
How Should a Parent React?
If you suspect your child is using a vegan diet to mask an eating disorder, arguing with your child about the diet will not be helpful. You need to seek professional help for your child, starting with a therapist who is qualified to work with eating disordered patients. You may also need to schedule a checkup with your paediatrician, if your child has lost significant amounts of weight. Keep in mind, this type of behaviour is not limited to girls. Boys can also develop eating disorders and use a vegan diet to justify the behaviour.
Here are some great strategies to consider when you child becomes vegan:
Start a dialogue: Don’t dismiss when your child announces they want to shift to a vegan diet. Instead, have a conversation about what inspired them to change the way they eat. Maybe their love interest is vegan. Maybe they are concerned about animal welfare. Maybe they want to lose weight before spring training begins. No matter what the reason, understanding the thinking behind the switch can help you get on board with their decision and ensure they stay healthy. It will also give you the opportunity to suggest that they plan their meals specifically for their needs.
Focus on the perks: Compared to a non-vegetarian eating pattern, vegetarian diets include more fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, an appropriately-planned vegetarian diet is healthy and nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits during all stages of the life cycle.
Stock your kitchen: Keep whole, unprocessed, vegan-friendly foods on hand. Instead of processed snack foods, stock your kitchen with healthy choices, such as grab-and-go fruit, whole-grain crackers, canned beans and bean spreads such as hummus, sliced veggies, nuts and seeds and their butters, and tasty spreads like guacamole or tahini.
Try “Meatless Mondays”: You don’t have to be vegan to try “Meatless Mondays.” Just decide not to eat meat one day each week. If you want to get really adventurous, have the whole family go vegan that day, too. It’s a great way to support your child without dramatically changing everyone’s lifestyle.
Get creative: Prepare meals that everyone in the family enjoys and occasionally keep non-vegan items on the side. Rather than casseroles, which may have meat or cheese already mixed in, prepare buildable meals like baked stuffed potato, tacos, wraps and versatile pasta and rice dishes. That way, you can cook animal protein and put it on the side for non-vegan family members to enjoy.
Let your child take charge: Depending on the age of your child, let them take responsibility for adhering to their own standards. Similar to implementing any type of lifestyle change, it’s important to set realistic expectations and define responsibility related to the change. Encourage your child to be hands-on in the kitchen, at the grocery store and more. After all, this was a decision they chose to make.
Keep it Healthy: Just because a diet is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A child who loads up on fake meat and French fries instead of burgers and milkshakes isn’t doing their body any favours. Take a supportive role and guide your children toward healthy vegan decisions that emphasize a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Here’s where to get these key nutrients in vegan form:
Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, legume pastas, nuts and seeds
Fortified plant-based beverages (unsweetened soy milk, almond milk and oat milk)
Tofu or tempeh
Green leafy vegetables like collard and turnip greens, kale and broccoli
Fortified cereals, beans, seeds
Leafy green vegetables and fortified tofu.
Pair with vitamin C-rich foods (strawberries, bell peppers, citrus fruits and tomatoes) to enhance iron absorption.
Fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk and nutritional yeast.
Consult with your doctor or dietician about whether additional nutritional supplementation may be required. Avoid turning to “Dr Google” or a friend’s advice on social media.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
These are made by the body from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts and soybeans.
Consult with your doctor or dietician about whether additional nutritional supplementation may be required.
Ask your child to do some research on the nutritional aspects of vegan diets, so you can understand it better. This will also help your child to learn that vegan meals are more than just soy burgers. A teen who wants to follow a vegan diet should not expect parents to become short-order cooks. Two websites worth looking at are nutritionfacts.com and examine.com. Neither of these sites sell nor promote products, they simply collate scientific research using evidence-based practice methodology.
Working with your child to learn more about vegan meals and recipes can be a fun, shared experience. It might also inspire family members to eat healthier meals, with more legumes, whole grains and vegetables. There’s no downside to that.
1 Day Sample Meal Plan:
Here is a sample vegan plan for a teenage girl to demonstrate nutritional balance and meal ideas.This is a guide only and variety of foods is always recommended.
Oats and Banana Nutty Oats, made with:
1 cup cooked oats
1 medium banana
1 tsp maple syrup
14 pecan nuts
Unsweetened coconut milk fortified with calcium and Vitamin D
Lunchbox for Lunch and Morning and Afternoon Snacks:
Fresh veggies and 1/3 cup hummus
2 cups popcorn with nutritional yeast
1/3 cup roasted edamame beans
1 slice sweet potato bread with 1 tbsp peanut butter and 1 tsp jam
1 wrap with salad, 1/3 cup mashed black eyed beans, grated coconut cheese
Baked kale chips
2 cups Sweet and sour tofu (200 g) stir fry
Served with 1/2 cup cooked brown rice
Chocolate avocado pudding, made with:
15 ml vanilla unsweetened almond milk
Drops of vanilla essence
1/2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 pitted date
1/2 tbsp agave nectar
Kath Megaw (BSc Dietetics Hons, Diploma Paediatric Dietetics) holds four medical qualifications including a paediatric dietetic qualification from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Balitmore, USA. She has been published in the Epilepsia journal on the use of the paediatric ketogenic diet in third-world settings and frequently speaks to groups of both professionals and parents on infant and childhood nutrition. Kath is the author of Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children (Quivertree Publications), the co-author of Feeding Sense (Metz press), The Low Carb Solution for Diabetics (Quivertree Publications),as well as co-author of Weaning Sense and Allergy Sense (Quivertree Publications). Kath has been in private practice for over 18 years and is the founder of Nutripaeds, a paediatric dietetic practice.