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Raising a vegan adolescent

When children hit the teenage phase in their lives parents and carers often report a host of changes. These could include a change in personal hygiene, temperament and most distressing of all (for the cook in the house) in food choices. When a young person is faced with raging hormones, lengthening limbs, developing body parts and a change in voice timbre, the fight to establish their own identity starts. It is therefore not uncommon to have your once sweet and compliant progeny announce that he or she will no longer be eating meat. This is comparatively easier to support than when your heir states that he or she will from now on be following a vegan diet.

Photo credit: Vanessa Lewis Photography

What is veganism?
The vegan society states that a vegan is someone who abstains from eating anything animal related, be it meat, eggs, fish, diary or honey. A vegan lifestyle furthermore includes the avoidance of any products made from animal products such as leather, wool, and silk.

Which are the safe food options?
All fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains are deemed safe provided nothing from an animal source has been added into the mix. For example a fruit salad is a delicious breakfast or snack option provided it is not served with cream or honey. Chocolate is still on the menu as long as it does not contain any milk or milk derivates. Baked goods can be enjoyed as snacks as long as it is free from eggs and dairy.

The standard teenage diet.
Most teenagers in the west seem to gravitate towards pizza, pasta, pot noodles, sausages, chips, fizzy drinks and candy during those magical years of rapid growth and development. This nutrient deficient diet is an area of great concern amongst nutrition consultants as the data clearly dictates that all diets should be inclusive of a good source of protein, ample fresh vegetables and fruit, and wholegrain products (WHO 2003). In the UK the 5-a-day vegetable and fruit campaign is still proven to fall short of its target in most households. The closest most teenagers regularly get to a fruit is probably a strawberry Haribo.

The first thing that my own teenage son eliminated from his diet once he decided upon becoming vegan was sweets. The addition of gelatine makes this an unsuitable snack option. Gelatine is made from collagen, which is found in animal bones, hooves and other connective tissue organs, and used in most confectionery. Furthermore, a lot of candy with soft centres may contain honey, another unacceptable food substance when following a vegan diet. Add into the mix his abrupt avoidance of ice cream, chocolate, biscuits and cake and I was beginning to see a bright light shining with regards to his nutritional status. Butter was replaced with a good quality dairy free spread and olive oil. For his traditional birthday cake we now use olive oil instead of butter and eggs and all the other family members tuck in quite heartily when this treat is served.

The vegan society website states that it is important to “remember that a balanced meal should include a protein element (rather than, for example, just carbohydrates and vegetables)”. It is imperative to note that all balanced diets should include a good source of protein, wholegrains and plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruit. The British Heart Foundation actively promotes at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetable per day to address cardiovascular disease risk. The British Nutritional Foundation states that research clearly indicate the importance of basing the bulk of any diet on fruit and vegetables to prevent cancers linked with diet. This message is also supported by the Global Diabetes Community, who advises us that all diets should be inclusive of unrefined grains and cereals, vegetables, and fruit.

Protein and vegetables seem to be the two ingredients that are lacking at most dinners, except for Christmas, of course where a mountain of protein and carbohydrates fuel us for a long post-prandial sleep on the couch. The government guideline (Reference Nutrient Intake) for protein for young adults is 0.75g of protein per body kilogram of weight on a daily basis. Thus if your teenager weighs 60kg then the protein need is 45g. 100g of Heinz baked beans provide 9.9g of protein and a similar amount of tinned chickpeas provide 7.8g. Vegan protein options include legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds. Therefore a lentil soup with added vegetables and barley is a well-balanced meal providing an array of essential macronutrients needed for optimal growth and development.

When it comes to essential micronutrients such as vitamin B12, iron, vitamin D and calcium, vegans can rely on fortified food products such as cereals, and when deficiency is suspected and confirmed via specific serum testing, supplementation can be a viable option. (Supplementation should not be considered without consulting of a qualified nutrition consultant.) Calcium rich food sources include nuts, seeds, and low-oxalate vegetables such as bok choy and kale (Fuhrman 2010).

The big picture:
If your teenager states that he or she is serious about changing their diet you will know they are committed when sweets and other non-essential foodstuff are completely eliminated and they start investigating nutrient dense staple ingredients. When they heartily tuck into soba noodles, non-genetically modified organic tofu and plenty of added vegetables you know you have a healthy balanced young adult in your midst. However, if they prefer to start the day with a soya latte and a vegan muffin, you may want to ensure that better alternatives are available.

Raising a teenager requires patience and unconditional love in abundance at the best of times. If you suspect that your son or daughter is manipulating you through their erratic food choices then it is sensible to ask for help from a qualified nutrition expert to ensure that whilst they are in your care, you arm them with sound dietary knowledge to facilitate a healthy future.


Department of Health (1999). Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom, The Stationery Office, Tenth impression, pp. 78-84

Diet, nutrition and the preventions of chronic diseases (2003), WHO Technical Report Series 916, Geneva

Fuhrman, J, Ferreri, DM (2010). Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete, Nutrition & Ergogenic Aids, Vol. 9, Number 4, pp. 233-241

This article was published in issue 205 of Positive Health On-Line Magazine in April 2013

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