Parents of vegan teenagers often worry about them getting all the nutrition their growing bodies need.
One common concern is whether a vegan diet can provide all the essential vitamins and minerals.
Veganism is now very much part of the mainstream. The number of people adopting a vegan lifestyle in the UK has risen by 350% in the past decade, and it is today’s teenagers who are at the forefront of this change. Now, 42% of all vegans are aged 15-34, compared with just 14% who are over 65.
Being vegan means you don’t consume or use any animal products. This means everything from not eating dairy products, to not wearing leather and only using homecare products and cosmetics that are not tested on animals.
The reasons why so many teens are ditching meat and dairy are many and varied, but most frequently mentioned are their concerns about the environment and climate change, ethical reasons linked to animal welfare and a desire improve their personal health.
If your teenager is keen to adopting a vegan lifestyle, you can be confident that, with some careful planning, is it a safe option for them.
To stay healthy, it is important that they eat a variety of foods daily and focus on specific nutrients that supports their growth. Unless you are blessed with a super-organised teen they may well need your support with this as they adjust to their new lifestyle.
Help them go vegan healthily with our 7 top tips.
#1 Take a Vitamin B12 Supplement
Vitamin B12 is necessary for protein metabolism and the formation of oxygen-transporting red blood cells. It also plays a crucial role in the health of your nervous system.
Clinical studies have shown that too little vitamin B12 can lead to anaemia and nervous system damage, as well as infertility and bone and heart disease.
The recommended daily intake is 25 mcg per day. Dairy, meat, seafood and eggs are the usual soiurces of B12. For vegans, algae and mushrooms contain a form of this micronutrient, but research shows that the bioavailability of this form of the vitamin is variable.
Some vegans believe that if you eat enough of the right plant foods you don’t need to worry about vitamin B12 deficiency, but there is no scientific basis for this belief.
The only scientifically proven way for vegans to reach the recommended levels is by eating B12-fortified foods such as plant milks, soy products, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast or taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
Vegan teenagers should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement of at least 25 mcg per day to maintain healthy blood production. Choose an oral spray or a product which melts under the tongue as these are better absorbed.
Find out more about vitamin B12 here.
#2 Calcium and Vitamin D
One of the main minerals that vegan teenagers should concentrate on taking in daily is calcium.
Essential to help grow strong bones, adolescents need 1300 mg of calcium a day. Studies tend to agree that most vegans don’t get enough calcium.
Some vegans suggest they have lower calcium needs than omnivores because they don’t need this mineral to neutralize the acidity produced by a meat-rich diet. More research is needed in this area, but evidence suggests that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium tend to have an increased risk of bone fractures.
For this reason, all vegans are encouraged to aim for the RDA, making sure they consume at least 525 mg of calcium per day.
Switching to a vegan diet means milk and dairy products are no longer an option, so it is important to replace these calcium rich animal foods with vegan alternatives.
Foods naturally high in calcium like dark green leafy vegetables, chickpeas, tahini, and almonds are all useful additions to the diet. There are also many calcium fortified foods such as plant milks, tofu and orange juice.
With a bit of planning it is perfectly possible to get sufficient calcium from natural dietary sources and fortified foods.
Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium and is essential for a healthy immune system. It also influences many other bodily processes, including mood, memory, and muscle recovery.
The recommended daily allowance for vitamin D is 15 mcg per day. Studies show that most people, including teenagers, don’t get enough vitamin D. In addition to encouraging your teen to get outside more often to soak up D-producing sunlight, in the winter months, consider a vegan vitamin D3 supplement.
Vitamin D can be found in fortified foods like soya milk and breakfast cereals. If you opt for a supplement, aim for a formula with 1,000+ IUs a day. Oral sprays are better absorbed. Tablets and gels are best absorbed when taken with food as vitamin D is fat soluble.
#3 Iron and Vitamin C
It is also important that growing teens get enough iron.
There are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme. Plants only provide a source of non-heme iron. This form is less easily absorbed than heme iron, so vegans are often recommended to aim for 1.8 times the normal RDA.
So, vegan teens need to aim for 8 mg of iron a day (boys) or 18 mg of iron a day (girls).
Foods naturally high in iron include dark green leafy vegetables, lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, tofu, dried fruit, nuts, seeds and quinoa. Fortified breakfast cereals and energy bars are also easy additions to the diet.
It is also a good idea, especially for girls, to make sure they eat foods high in vitamin C with at least two of their daily meals.
Plant-food iron isn’t as easily absorbed as that in meat sources, but vitamin C greatly increases the absorption of this type of iron. So and easy solution is to add something with vitamin C to every iron-rich meal to aid absorption. For example, mix tomatoes into bean soup or squeeze lemon juice over cooked kale.
Also, using cast-iron pots and pans to cook and avoiding tea or coffee with meals can help boost iron absorption.
We would suggest you avoid iron supplements for your vegan teenagers. Research suggests that unnecessary intake of supplements like iron can do more harm than good by damaging cells or blocking the absorption of other minerals.
Iodine is essential for thyroid health and for the cells to release energy from food.
The RDA for adults is 150 mcg of iodine per day. Vegans are at risk of iodine deficiency, and studies report that vegans have up to 50% lower blood iodine levels than vegetarians.
Dairy products and seafood are excellent sources of iodine. Although vegetables do contain it, the levels are highly variable as they depend on the iodine content of the soil in which they were grown.
For vegans seaweed is the best source. If your teenager does not have a taste for sushi or sea vegetables, it would be a good idea to invest in iodised salt to add to the family meals. Half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodised salt is sufficient to meet their daily needs.
#5 Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are many different omega-3 fatty acids, but the most important are EPA, DHA, and ALA.
EPAs and DHAs are mostly found in animal products, particularly fatty fish, seafood, and fish oil. DHAs can also be found in seaweed.
ALAs are found in many plants including flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans.
These three omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain and eye health. Studies have shown that adequate dietary levels are also important for reducing the risk of inflammation, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The good news for vegans is that your body can convert ALAs into EPAs and DHAs. So, getting enough ALA should theoretically ensure adequate levels of EPA and DHA. However, studies estimate that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA may be as low as 2–10%. Research consistently shows that vegans have up to 50% lower blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA than omnivores.
The RDA for omega-3 fatty acids is 200–300 mg per day. Vegans can reach this recommended intake by supplementing with algae oil.
Zinc is crucial for a healthy immune system and the repair of body cells.
The RDA for zinc is currently set at 8–11 mg per day. Plant foods don’t contain high amounts of zinc and it is less well absorbed than animal sources of this mineral. A review of 26 studies showed that many vegans have lower zinc intakes and slightly lower blood levels of zinc than omnivores . For this reason it is recommended that vegans aim for 1.5 times the RDA.
To maximize your intake, eat a variety of zinc-rich foods throughout the day. These include beans, nuts, and seeds, whole grains, wheat germ, and tofu. Fermented foods, such as tempeh and miso, also seems to boost absorption.
#7 Monitor Calorie Intake
It can be helpful to keep a discrete eye on your teenager’s calorie intake to make sure they are eating enough to provide sufficient energy and help them grow. If they begin feeling tired and weak or are losing weight, this maybe an indication that they are not eating enough food.
Because teenagers often grab snacks in place of sit-down meals, and easy way to help ensure they are eating enough is to stock the cupboards with healthy vegan foods that don’t require much preparation.
Nuts and dried fruit, trail mix, hummus, fortified plant milks and juices, nut butters and granola bars are all great options for vegan teenagers looking for a quick way to replenish energy after school or sports practices.
To Sum Up
Well-planned vegan diets can fulfil a growing teen’s nutritional needs.
Even with the best planning, there are certain nutrient requirements that may be difficult to achieve through diet and fortified foods alone.
Pay particular attention to vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegans who are unable to meet the dietary recommendations through diet alone should consider taking supplements.