Welcome back to Stirring The Pot. Thank you for joining me.
Our children are living in a very different world than the one we inhabited thirty years ago. I don't know about you, but when I was a teenager, I wasn't aware of an impending climate emergency. I wasn't well-versed on the welfare and environmental issues surrounding animal agriculture. Teenagers now, however, are very well-informed on these issues, partly due to the information explosion on social media but perhaps surprisingly also as a result of watching the David Attenborough documentary A Life On Our Planet. And make no mistake - young people care deeply about the health, humanity and biodiversity of the planet they will be inheriting. Teenagers are not, however, quite so interested in the health benefits of a plant-based diet which is where we as parents can play a supportive role. I have done the legwork on this one as I was in this situation four years ago when my teenager wanted to become vegan and I can assure you that despite initial concerns, I quickly discovered that a plant-based diet can be incredibly healthy. The British Dietetic Association supports a plant-based diet for all ages, as does Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, a rapidly growing group of medical doctors and dieticians who are realising the value of a healthy plant-based diet. While I believe that meals should not be turned into a chemistry project, I am also aware that there are some nutrients that you, as a parent, will want to be confident your child is getting in adequate amounts on a vegan diet.
Public Health England's (PHE) dietary recommendation for protein for 11-14 year olds is 42 grams/day. For males 15-18 years, the recommendation is 55 grams/day and for females 15-18 years, it is 45 grams/day. These levels are very easily achieved on a plant-based diet. For example, a half cup serving of firm tofu contains 18g of protein. A 20g serving of peanut butter contains almost 5g of protein. A cup of broccoli contains almost 5g of protein. Protein is found in varying amounts in all plants, so as long as your child is getting enough calories in a day, it is very likely that they are consuming enough protein. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, tofu), nuts, seeds and whole grains (quinoa, wheat, rice, oats, corn) are all excellent sources of protein. They all contain varying quantities of the nine essential amino acids which the body requires in order to make its own protein. Mixing and matching the protein sources in a day ensures the full dietary complement of essential amino acids. This is as simple as having chickpea hummus with pita bread, or a peanut butter sandwich.
For those of you with athletic teenagers, the daily protein requirement might be slightly higher. Athletes have a higher food intake however, which tends to provide the increased protein requirement. Plant-based protein sources are ideal as they come packaged with carbohydrates which are an important fuel for athletes. For more information on nutrition for athletes, have a look at the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine's comprehensive site. Vegan Fitness is another excellent source of information and recipes for plant-based athletes. Please just be aware that these two sites are intended for adult athletes.
PHE's dietary recommendation for iron for males 11-18 year olds is 11 mg/day. For females aged 11-18 years, the requirement is 15 mg/day to compensate for menstrual loss. Iron is important for normal red blood cell production. Plants contain iron in a 'non-haem' form which is less readily absorbed than iron in the 'haem' form found in meat, so iron requirements in a plant-based diet will be slightly higher. However, research has shown that vegans are no more likely to be iron-deficient than omnivores. In fact vegans have the benefit of not consuming dairy products which are generally low in iron and displace healthier foods in the diet. A half cup of sesame seeds (or tahini) contains 10mg of iron. A half cup of lentils contains 4mg of iron. Kidney beans, spinach, dried apricots, nuts and tofu are also excellent sources of iron. Consuming foods high in vitamin C such as peppers, broccoli or oranges with iron-rich foods improves absorption of the iron. And don't forget that most breakfast cereals are fortified with iron. An example of an iron-rich meal would be a tofu frittata with red peppers.
Calcium requirements are increased during adolescence to support bone formation. PHE's dietary recommendation for calcium for males aged 11-18 years is 1000 mg/day and for females aged 11-18 years is 800 mg/day. Calcium is a mineral found in soil and is taken up by growing plants. One cup of cooked kale contains 180mg of calcium. Other greens such as broccoli, pak choi and spring greens are also very good sources of calcium. One medium-sized orange alone contains 75mg of calcium. A 100g serving of calcium-set tofu can contain as much as 350mg of calcium. For omnivorous adolescents, one third of calcium is supplied through dairy products. This can easily be replaced with plant milks which are supplemented with an equivalent level of calcium (120mg/100ml) as that found in dairy milk, as well as being supplemented with Vitamin D which helps with calcium absorption. You also might not know that white and brown flour milled in the UK is fortified with calcium, such that even 2 slices of wholemeal bread contain 54mg of calcium.
Iodine is another mineral found in the soil, however the levels vary from region to region. As a result, iodine levels in plants are unreliable. PHE's dietary recommendation for iodine in adolescence is 140mcg/day. Iodine in the diet is important for healthy thyroid function and this is particularly important in pregnancy. There is evidence that teenage girls do not get enough iodine even on an omnivore diet. A key source of iodine is through milk products, as animal feed is fortified with iodine and cow teats are cleaned with an iodine-containing antiseptic. Some plant milks in the UK (Oatly (non-organic), Alpro Soya, and Marks and Spencer's own brand) are now fortified with iodine (22.5mcg/100ml). The British Dietetic Association recommends consuming either 500ml of iodine-supplemented plant milk or a vegan multivitamin which includes 140 micrograms of iodine per day. Do not use seaweed or kelp supplements as an iodine source as they can provide excessive quantities of iodine.
Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria which live in the soil. Because of our modern-day hygienic lifestyle, these bacteria are destroyed. Animal feed therefore needs to be supplemented with Vitamin B12 which in turn provides Vitamin B12 to omnivores who consume animal-based foods. Vitamin B12 is crucial for healthy nerve function and blood cell function. It cannot be found in reliable amounts in a plant-based diet, so anyone on a purely vegan diet requires Vitamin B12 supplementation of at least 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week (British Dietetic Association). This is non-negotiable.
So how does this nutritional information translate into food? The easiest way to look at it is with the Plant-Based Eatwell Guide which is appropriate for adolescents as well as adults. The Vegan society has an excellent summary of how to put this information into practice:
- aim for at least 5 portions of fruit or vegetables per day including leafy greens
- include high fibre starchy foods such as oats, sweet potatoes, wholemeal pasta or bread, or brown rice with every meal
- have a protein-rich food such as beans, lentils, tofu or nuts with most meals
- have a portion of nuts or seeds daily
- have a calcium-rich food such as tofu or calcium fortified food with most meals
Your teenage son might need larger portions of all of these foods. If your teenager is lacking energy when starting a plant-based diet, consider whether they are consuming enough calories. Plant-based food is not as calorie dense as meat and dairy.
For family friendly recipes have a look at these sites:
- Dreena Burton has been creating nutritious and delicious child-friendly recipes for years
- PCRM provides easy snack ideas in its PDF
- Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancaster is a plant-based paediatrician - the resources page on her website Veggie Fit Kids will take you down a wonderful rabbit hole of information
Enjoy the journey with your teenager. There are several documentaries that you can watch together such as Cowspiracy and The Game Changers. And rest assured that a plant-based diet is an incredibly healthy way of eating, full of fruits, veg, whole grains, legumes and plenty of fibre.
Please be aware that a plant-based diet is a very effective way to lose weight, so if you are taking medication please consult your healthcare professional as medication doses might need altering as you become lighter and healthier. Also, anyone on a purely plant-based diet requires vitamin B12 supplementation of at least 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week (British Dietetic Association).