A vegan diet consists of only plant-based products — it has no meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, and some people also exclude honey. Vegan diets are becoming more common, and there has been quite an increase in media exposure recently. Since plant-based diets are low in saturated fat and can have other health benefits, many families or teenagers have chosen them for health reasons. Others of course based on ethical and philosophical choices — either for environmental sustainability, or not wanting to cause harm to animals, or both.It’s important to get educated before dropping meat entirely from your diet however – while vegan diets can absolutely be healthy, there are some nutritional and other issues that one should be aware of.
“Eating can and should be fun, no matter what diet we choose.”
Children on a vegan diet – calories and protein
These are two very important aspects to be aware of and properly planned for:
Calories. Plant-based foods generally have fewer calories than animal-based ones. For many this can be a good thing, given the current obesity epidemic in the US and Canada, but it’s very important to ensure children and teens get enough calories to grow and support an active lifestyle. The number of calories a child needs will depend on their age, size, and activity levels. Nuts, nut butters, and soy products are generally good high-calorie sources, as are granola and other whole-grain foods.
Protein. Protein is crucial, not just for building muscle but for all sorts of body processes, including brain-function. This is a nutrient that is simply easier to get from eggs, meat and fish, since there is more of it and it’s available as a complete protein, meaning that it has all the amino acid building blocks that we need. Protein from plant products is less accessible to the body and may or may not be complete — and for this reason people on vegan diets should be consuming more protein than those on animal-based diets, just to be on the safe side. As with calories, the amount of protein a child needs depends on their age and size. Nuts, legumes (including peanuts), soy products, and whole grains are all good sources of protein.
Children on a vegan diet – key minerals and vitamins
Calcium. Calcium is very important, especially for bone development and health. Generally dairy products like cheese and yogurt are the easiest source of available calcium, but there are other ways to ensure you have enough, through foods like kale, bok choy, broccoli and other green leafy vegetables. Many alternative milks like soy milk, rice milk and almond milk are fortified with calcium (and vitamin D), as are some brands of orange juice.
Iron. Iron is important to keep blood and one’s body healthy and strong. Fortified cereals and some other plant products have iron, but it’s a good idea to provide a multivitamin with iron for children.
Vitamin B12. Another crucial nutrient that can be harder to get on a plant-based diet, sources of B12 can be soy beverages and fortified cereals, but again a multivitamin is a good idea.
Vitamin D. While enough vitamin D can most often be got from simple sunshine, the winter months can be tricky, especially in Canada, and one should ensure one’s diet provides an adequate source. Fortified dairy products can do, but for those on a vegan diet a supplement can be necessary. For younger children, the 400 IU present in most multivitamins is enough; older children may need more. It advised to talk to one’s doctor about what is best for your child.
Fiber. Vegan diets may actually have too much of this, since plants have a lot of fiber. A common problem with too much fiber is that it simply fills one up, making it harder to get enough calories and other nutrients that are needed. Refined grains like cereals can help with this, as well as peeling fruits and cooking vegetables instead of too much raw.
Other things to consider . . .
Don’t forget to be aware of the emotional sides of being on a vegan diet. If the family is not vegan, but one of the children is asking to be, it’s important to understand where this is coming from and why it may be important for the junior member. The reasons may be good and healthy, but children, especially teenagers, could be choosing vegan diets to lose weight, even when it may be unnecessary, and if one suspects possibilities of an eating disorder, it may be time to talk to a doctor.
Veganism is a restrictive diet, and it can be difficult for some children who may feel different from their peers, or excluded from group eating experiences like birthday parties. As a parent these are important things to consider and talk about as a family. If it’s important that a child adhere to a vegan diet in all settings, one should plan strategies on navigating through these unavoidable eventualities, both in terms of making sure a child has enough food to eat in all settings, and in terms of helping them talk about their dietary choices with friends.
After all, eating is not just about feeding our bodies. Eating can and should be fun, no matter what diet we choose.