Vegan diets for kids and teens: Do’s and don'ts
It takes elite resolve to cut animal products from your diet. If you’ve already taken this step, you have my admiration.
Of course, eliminating meat doesn’t mean you are automatically healthy. You can stuff yourself with takeaways, French fries and Coke, working hard towards iron deficiency, bone abnormalities and poor sports performance.*
Animal proteins are a great source of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12. In your early teens, your bones are growing and strengthening (Thor muscles hyperlink), your muscle mass increases massively, and girls specifically start losing blood which has to be replenished.
On top of that, you might be training hard! Is it risky to eliminate animal products?
Topping up calcium
We’re kicking it off with calcium, which regulates our muscular metabolism and brain activity as well as strengthening our bones. So, can we have enough calcium on a vegan diet?
Dairy is the most well-known source, but almond, sesame seeds, leafy greens, and soybeans are all great sources of calcium. Check the labels on soy ice cream or almond spreads to top up. Fruit can give us calcium as well, which few people are aware of. Although our “rainbow” friends” do not have a huge amount of it per portion, they can help us hit a healthy daily target. Some examples are kiwis, tangerines, papayas and blackberries. Take great care to eat enough or you’ll have to take supplements! You don’t want to mess with your bone growth during childhood or adolescence.****
Plus, high consumption of dairy is associated with acne (due to liver fatigue from digesting it). Good to avoid. *****
Iron, vitamin D and B12
These are all incredibly important nutrients for humans; their functions span from oxygen transport to bone strength, skin and kidney health.
Iron intake tends to be higher in vegan individuals. Similarly to protein though, plant iron is not as readily available as meat iron. So we just need to make sure we keep our vegetables as varied as possible (broccoli, spinach, lentils, and tofu are all great for this).**
Vitamin D intake depends on one main factor: exposure to sunlight (hyperlink to dosing daylight blog). But what if I live in northern Canada and I don’t see sunlight for 6 months? Once again, many vegetables contain vitamin D in small doses, but in regions with short days in winter, you will need supplements if you want to stick with veganism.** Take special care to compensate for slower vitamin D absorption when you have darker skin.
Finally, vitamin B12. Now, that’s a little hard to find in plants. Look out for plant based beverages which are fortified with B12 (soy, almond, oat drinks). Mushrooms are a very good source of it. Watch that your B12 intake doesn’t slip! Training is tough without it as you would feel constantly tired.**
You have heard this question a thousand times if you’re vegan, probably ten thousand if you are a sporty individual. Where do you get your protein from? The answer is simple: certainly not from McDonald’s. Seriously though, I am not too sure why everybody panics about protein intake, when you have soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame beans), lentils, all kinds of beans, peas, seeds (chia, pistachios, sesame), nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, etc).
The list could go on and on - protein is not hard to source! Plus, the protein intake for a very active person is 2.2g/Kg of body weight every day (hyperlink sports drinks), which can well be lower if you don’t train every day. Heck, a cup of peas on its own gives you 17g already, it’s not hard to get to 130 grammes a day for a super active athlete weighing 60 kilos.**
Key to protein is “biological value”. This is the ability of your body to put the proteins into good use, with a scale from 0 (terrible) to 100 (amazing). Although the highest rank goes to milk whey and egg proteins, soy beats beef, and beans beat some kinds of fish. In short: It’s complicated. Renouncing animal products will probably slightly diminish, on average, the quality of the protein you eat, but in a negligible way.***
Is a vegan diet good for a teenager?
Any coach will tell you the return on investment of a healthy diet is immense.
Whichever are the reasons that drive you to make a brave and demanding decision, being vegan shouldn’t just be ticking a box. You’re going through puberty, an important growth phase. Make it serious, make it worth the sacrifices, make it an occasion to improve the quality of your food and to know your own body better. If done correctly, there are a lot of advantages in a plant based diet, for health, sustainability and environment. Research even shows that a vegan diet can make you live longer!******
My personal experience
I have been vegetarian since my 20s and although the start was a little rough (I was eating eggs every day!) I decided to stick to my decision. I acknowledged that everything new requires a learning curve. Day after day, increasing my awareness of what each meal contains, made me realise how good you feel when you eliminate unnecessary junk from your diet. It might sound cheesy, but we literally are what we eat. Becoming a vegetarian raised my perception of what I eat from “food” to “nutrition”. Nowadays my basketball days are over, but I still compete in CrossFit. I couldn’t extend my athletic life into my 30s without sticking to a healthy diet. And I made that conscious shift even coming from Italy, where surely we eat the best in the world...
*Craig, W. J.(2009) ‘Health effects of vegan diets.’ American journal of clinical nutrition, 89, 1627S – 1633S.
**Lemale, J., Mas, E., Jung, C., Bellaiche, M., Tounian, P. (2019) ‘Vegan Diet in children and adolescents. Recommendations from the French-speaking pediatric hepatology, gastroenterology and nutrition group.’ Archives de pediatrie, 26, 442-450.
***Hoffman, J. R., Falvo, M. J. (2004) ‘Protein – which is the best?’ Journal of sports science and medicine,3, 118-130.
****Sutted, D. O., Bender, N. (2021) ‘Nutrient status and growth in vegan children.’ Journal of nutrition research, 91, 13-25.
*****LaRosa, C. L., Quach, K. A., Koons, K., Kunselman, A. R., Zhu, J., Thiboutot, D. M., Zaenglein, A. L. (2016) ‘Consumption of dairy in teenagers with and without acne.’ Journal of the American academy of dermatologists, 75(2), 318-322.
******Caprara, G. (2018) ‘Diet and longevity: the effects of traditional eating habits on human lifespan extension.’ Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 11, 261-294.
Cherry, E. (2014) ‘I was a teenage vegan: motivation and maintenance of lifestyle moments.’ Sociological enquiry, 1-20.
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