To Veg Or Not To Veg

22 09 2009

If my teenager told me, her pork-lovin’ mama, that she was a vegan, I’d slam my sausage down and tell her to glue her fanny to a chair until I got a dictionary.

Turns out vegans don’t consume animal food – not even dairy products.  They don’t even wear leather shoes.

OK, first thing any involved parent will think about is: How is this going to affect my life?  Will I have to cook two meals, one vegan and one for regular people?  Just how much of a pain is this going to be and when is she moving out?

Oh, and how healthy is this lifestyle choice anyway?  (Yes, I eventually got there.)

If your teen is exploring vegetarianism or even veganism, here’s some animal-free food for thought.

The American Dietetic Association says that vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy for people of any age, even for children. These diets are generally low in saturated fats, lower in cholesterol, and higher in fiber. These factors put vegetarians and vegans at much lower risk of obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes than most meat lovers.

Vegetarians usually omit meat, poultry, and seafood from their diets, while vegans eliminate all animal products, including eggs and dairy, although there are vegetarians who eat fish and poultry and vegans who love their egg whites.  Apparently there’s room for personal choice.

Teens, whether meat-eating or not, are infamous for poor eating habits. Vegetarian and vegan teens, like all teens, need parental support in making healthy food choices. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, like any diet, is variety. Parents should be aware of the vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet, particularly if variety is sparse.

Vitamin B12 is important in the formation of red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system, and it’s essential for proper growth. A B12 deficiency can cause irreversible nervous system damage. Naturally, this vitamin is only found in meat, eggs, and dairy products, so look for fortified soymilk, cereals, or nutritional yeast if your child is vegan. Many meat-substitute products also contain B12.

Calcium is an essential mineral for many body functions. Blood clotting, muscle function, and the nervous system require calcium. When the body lacks calcium for these functions, it draws on calcium stored in the bones, leading to decreased bone density and possible fractures. Besides dairy sources, calcium is found in soymilk, calcium-fortified juice, soybeans, tofu, broccoli, and many other vegetables.

Vitamin D plays a vital role in regulating many organ systems and endocrine functions, as well as maintaining bone structure. Fish, eggs, and milk are great sources of vitamin D. As little as fifteen minutes of sun a day on the skin can provide some vitamin D. Fortified soymilk, juices, and cereals provide vitamin D, but a supplement for vegans is probably a good idea, especially in the winter months.

Iron is essential for oxygen transport in the body, as well as for the production and survival of all cells in the body. Green leafy vegetables, tofu, beans, fortified cereals, and meat-substitutes contain iron. The problem is that the body does not absorb iron from these sources as readily as it does from animal sources. Menstruating females and other teens may benefit from an iron supplement.

Zinc has numerous functions in the body and plays a role in nervous system function and reproductive organ growth. Red meats contain a lot of zinc, but it’s also found in wheat, beans and many seeds. Too much zinc can be harmful, so use care when considering a zinc supplement.

Proteins are made of amino acids that are essential for almost every body function. Surprisingly, nearly all vegetarians get enough protein. A vegetarian or vegan teen should eat a balance of legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and whole grains every day. Eggs and dairy provide plenty of protein, if that’s part of their food plan.

If your teen announces he’s become a vegan, then yes, it’s going to mean more work for you.  But, with a little help from you, his doting parent, he’ll be eating foods that are good for him and, bonus, you don’t have to fork out the bucks for leather anything anymore!




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