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Healthy Living for Vegan and Vegetarian Teens

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In the last several decades, vegetarianism and veganism have gone from fringe movements to widely accepted, relatively common dietary preferences. Once associated with overly zealous hippies, vegan snacks now line the aisles of every major grocery store. Many restaurants throughout Bangkok are entirely vegetarian or offer a solid selection of vegetarian options. However, should your teen decide to become either a vegan or vegetarian (or pescatarian or flexitarian), it’s important to make sure that they are still getting the nutrition they require. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The fact that it’s vegetarian does not automatically make it healthy.

Yes, tofu and broccoli are vegetarian. So are potato chips, Cheetos, pastries and a whole host of other things your teen probably shouldn’t be scarfing down on a daily basis. Many children grow up eating meals centered around meat. When they give up their main source of protein, many do not know quite how to have a balanced meal. It’s important to help your teen construct balanced meals that don’t rely heavily on refined carbohydrates and fats.

Understand that there are different levels of restriction.

Some teens, loosely termed “flexitarians”, may choose to eat less animal protein, but still enjoy the occasional treat, while others may abstain from meat and poultry, but eat fish, making them “pescatarians”. In general, it’s fairly easy for these first two groups of people to get the nutrients they need. “Lacto-vegetarians” avoid all meat, but still eat dairy products, while “ovo-vegetarians” eat eggs. True vegans do not consume any animal products, including honey.

Find alternate sources of protein.

It’s entirely possible to get enough protein from non-animal sources, provided your teen knows how. Of all the amino acids our bodies require, there are a few essential ones that it cannot produce on its own. All of these can be found in meat and animal products. Soy and quinoa are two of the only plant foods that will provide a complete protein. Alternatively, vegetarians and vegans should make sure to have a combination of a whole grain (such as barley, spelt, teff, amaranth, whole wheat, brown rice, etc.) with legumes (e.g., beans, peas, peanuts, etc.) at every meal, as the two together form a complete protein.

Be careful of anemia.

Iron is available in the plant kingdom, but it isn’t as readily absorbed as the kind found in red meat. Beans, nuts, tofu, spinach and other foods all provide acceptable sources. To help the body absorb as much iron as possible, be sure that your teen combines them in meals that contain foods rich in vitamin C.

Consider these supplements for vegans:  vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, vitamin D and calcium.

Vitamin B12 is only naturally occurring in animal products, including fish, chicken, eggs and milk products. Vegans will need to add a B12 supplement or look for readily available fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.  Calcium and vitamin D (found in fortified milk) can also be a challenge, but supplements are readily available.  Zinc and iodine are also found in plant sources as well as available supplements.

References.

  1. Mayo Clinic: Healthy Lifestyle – Nutrition and healthy eating – Vegetarian diet: How to get the best nutrition. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446. Accessed on March 14, 2015.
  2. National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements:  Vitamin B12 Health Professional.  Available from:  http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-Consumer/, http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/.  Accessed March 15, 2015.

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