Is a vegetarian or vegan diet suitable for teenagers?
This week a question was emailed to me by Paula – she asks: Is a vegetarian or vegan diet suitable for teenagers? Does it provide the right amount of nutrients?
Great question, thank you Paula! Absolutely yes, both vegan (completely plant-based) and vegetarian (including eggs and dairy products) are suitable diets for teenagers if the diet’s well-balanced….
How to do your balanced vegan diet
Vegetables and fruits should be the main food group in our diet – whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian or meat eater, that’s where the main bulk of your diet should come from. Load up on veg in soups, smoothies, curries, stir-fries… Don’t forget frozen veg and fruit – great for convenience. Throw some fruit into you bag like apples, bananas and easy peelers – all make for a handy snack especially with some nuts.
- A well-balanced vegan diet must include sufficient Omega-3 fats (found in flaxseed (linseed), olive oil, walnuts, chia seeds, Irish rapeseed oil, hemp seed). It is very clear is that most people who eat a standard ‘western’ diet, don’t eat enough of these good fats. Remember, most commercial foods are made with cheaper vegetable oils.
- Are you concerned about getting enough protein, calcium, iron and Vitamin B12 in your vegan diet? Read on and we’ll look at each one as they are all vitally important for health:
You need to eat pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts, seeds or soya products every day to satisfy protein needs on a vegan diet. For teenagers this is especially vital for growth and development, but it is important for vegans of all ages. How much protein you need depends mainly on your body size and activity levels. Check the factsheet How much protein? for more info.
Like iron, too much calcium is harmful to the body. Our absorption of these minerals is controlled by how much we need. This remarkable feature of our physiology helps to maintain healthy levels. For good, strong bones and avoiding fractures if you’re injured playing sport or if you fall, you need a good balance of not only calcium, but also Vitamin D, potassium and magnesium as well as other trace elements. A high intake of vegetables provides these minerals, with plenty of exposure to sunshine – when we get it! Taking a Vitamin D supplement in winter months is advisable for everyone – click on the link for more info. Vegans need to ensure calcium intake but eating foods like almonds, cabbage, pumpkin seeds and parsley.
Here’s an important message for teenage girls: blood loss from your periods can contribute to low iron so it is important to get your bloods checked if you have symptoms if iron deficiency like fatigue, sensitivity to cold and loss of appetite. If you’re vegan you can prevent iron deficiency by eating nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli and kale and dried fruits like dates and apricots. Eating these foods along with fruits / veg high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, peppers for example) will help you absorb iron. On the other hand drinking tea and eating wheat bran will ‘rob’ iron from foods and prevent the body from absorbing it, so avoid consuming these at meal times.
This vitamin is essential to life even though we need very small quantities. Omnivores will get it in all animal foods. Good news is that B12 is also made by micro-organisms in plant foods and indeed by the micro-organisms in the human intestine (from where it will be reabsorbed by a healthy gut for use in the rest of the body) so there is not necessarily a need to take a supplement. However, for most vegans it is very easy to use a supplement like nutritional yeast flakes (gives a nutty / cheesy flavour when sprinkled on savoury foods like salads, soups or vegetable dishes).
I believe the trend for growing numbers of young people to try a vegan way of eating in recent years is very encouraging for the future. It is unquestionably better for our planet that we rely more on a plant-based than an animal-based diet. This isn’t only due to methane production from animals but it is also more efficient for us to eat the plants than to feed animals and eat their meat! Studies have consistently shown that people who eat a vegetarian diet enjoy better health and longer lives than meat eaters.
The take-home message is that ANY person’s diet, whether vegetarian, vegan or omnivore needs to be well-balanced and adjusted for their needs in terms of quantity and quality.