Is a Vegan Diet Safe for Teens and Tweens?
Going fully plant-based is trendy on social media and among celebs. But is a vegan diet really healthy for growing kids?
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith recently made headlines over an "intervention" they had with their son Jaden about his vegan diet.
"We realized he wasn't getting enough protein, so he was wasting away," said Pinkett Smith in an episode of her online show Red Table Talk. "He just looked drained. He was just depleted."
- RELATED: Will & Jada Pinkett Smith Had Intervention for Son Jaden After Weight Loss: 'He Was Wasting Away'
If your tween or teen has expressed interest in going vegan, you may be worried about that exact thing. Because vegan diets eliminate all animal products, that means no dairy milk, no cheese, no eggs, and of course no meat, poultry, or fish. It's natural to be concerned that your child won't get enough nourishment, especially if those foods were a big part of his diet.
First, some reassurance: Vegan diets can be perfectly safe and healthy for kids. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that vegan (and vegetarian) diets are appropriate for all stages of life—as long as they're well-planned. Jaden's experience is a good reminder of that.
A well-planned vegan diet isn't about just nixing all animal foods. It's about what you eat in their place. A vegan diet isn't healthy if your teen simply skips the burger and nibbles on fries or eats half the lunch she used to. Tweens and teens are in a time of enormous growth and development—not a time to skimp on calories or nutrients.
So if your tween or teen wants to go vegan, here are some facts you should know:
Some nutrients need more focus.
There are certain nutrients that are especially important for growing kids, so your child needs to include plant-based sources. Key nutrients for vegans include protein (think beans and lentils, tofu, soy milk, and whole grains), calcium (fortified non-dairy milk, almonds, and kale), iron (beans and nut butter), and vitamin B12 (fortified cereal and fortified non-dairy milk).
A healthy vegan diet is about eating whole foods.
Be sure your child knows that a healthy vegan diet means eating lots of real, whole foods—not hyper-processed packaged foods that happen to be vegan. If your child has shied away from veggies and legumes in the past, it's a good time to reconsider them!
Vegan diets require good planning.
Sketch out a week's worth of meals together. Take your child shopping with you. And involve him in the kitchen preparing vegan meals and snacks, which will make your life easier too.
- RELATED: How to Raise a Vegan Baby
Kids need enough calories to keep up with growth spurts and active schedules. Plant foods contain a lot of fiber, which can make kids feel full. So be sure your child is getting enough calories by offering nutritious snacks between meals and including sources of healthy fats like nuts and avocados.
Your child may need a supplement.
Check in with your pediatrician (or dietitian) to see whether a supplement such as vitamin B12, calcium, or iron is needed.
Diet changes can be red flags.
In some cases, diet changes that eliminate entire groups of food can be red flags for an eating disorder, so watch out for any signs that your tween or teen might be restricting foods to lose weight.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.