Healthy Eating Guide for Vegans

Written by Victoria Laios (APD)

Veganism….A diet once for animal activists, the health conscious and religious is now becoming an emerging trend in today’s society. Many teenagers (particularly young girls) are taking a keen interest towards the vegan approach. Despite its popularity, there is a lot of confusion as to what being “vegan” means and which foods are eaten as part of the diet.

So what does being“vegan” mean?

To resolve any more confusion, “vegan” is a type of vegetarian diet that consists of only plant-based foods [1]. It excludes all animal products including – dairy, eggs, meat, fish, poultry, seafood, honey and any other animal-derived food additives or preservatives (e.g. whey, casein, gelatin and rennet).

Foods that can be included as part of a vegan diet include [1].

  • Fruit and Vegetables
  • Breads, Cereals and Grains
  • Legumes, beans and pulses
  • Soy products
  • Nuts and seeds

There are many reasons why people choose to be vegan. The most common include – religious beliefs, family choice, preservation of animal rights, as well as environmental and health concerns. Some people also believe that excluding animal products from their diet will result in better health outcomes. Even reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases later on in life.

Veganism in teenagers – the common health concerns

More and more teenagers are becoming health conscious and adopting a vegan diet. Veganism is now widely promoted in today’s social media, magazine articles and on the internet. Let’s not forget that celebrity influences are also a contributing factor. Some high-profile celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Natalie Portman and Lea Michele have become vegans – claiming that it has improved their health.

However, there are many health concerns that can arise in teenagers who follow a vegan diet. If not undertaken correctly, teenagers are at risk of becoming deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. These include iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and omega-3. Vitamin B12 can only be obtained from animal products. Therefore, teenagers who are not supplementing this nutrient into their diet are at great risk of anemia. Deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D can also result in poor bone growth and formation.

Due to the restrictive nature of this diet, teenagers can also be more prone to disordered eating patterns. In fact, some are choosing to adopt a vegan diet for weight related-reasons. This is concerning because a vegan diet may fuel an obsession with “clean” eating, thus cause teenagers to eliminate a large variety of foods. These foods can be perceived as being “unhealthy” or “unclean”. As a result of this, teenagers are at risk of developing negative relationships with food and body image issues.

Doing vegan the right way:

The vegan diet excludes particular food groups, and needs careful planning to ensure that all nutritional requirements are being met. A well-balanced, healthy vegan diet involves consuming a wide variety of wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. The following are key nutrients required [2].

  • Protein – is needed for the formation and repair of cells, muscles and tissues. Plant-based sources include – beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, tofu, soy products (tempeh), textured vegetable protein and nut butters. Vegans should eat a variety of protein foods throughout the day.
  • Iron – can be obtained from plant-based foods such as – legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, wholegrain breads and cereals. Iron found in plant based foods (non-haem iron) is not as readily absorbed as the iron found in animal products (haem-iron). To increase absorption from plant-based foods, vegans should consume Vitamin C with meals – orange, berries, kiwi fruit, capsicum, tomato and broccoli. Try to avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals, as the tannins in these beverages inhibits iron absorption.
  • Vitamin B12 – is only found in animal products. To prevent nutrient deficiency, it is important for vegans to consume foods fortified with Vitamin B12 or take a Vitamin B12 supplement.
  • Calcium – as the vegan diet excludes dairy products, non-dairy sources of calcium should be consumed daily. Good sources are – calcium fortified soy products, hard tofu, almonds and green leafy vegetables (kale and Asian greens). Vegans also need to ensure an adequate Vitamin D intake to increase their calcium absorption.
  • Vitamin D – the primary source is from skin exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D can also be obtained from fortified foods such as margarine and soy milk.
  • Omega 3 – can be obtained from linseeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts, soy products and omega-3 fortified soy milk.

Overall, you can see that there are multiple things to consider when following a vegan diet. Veganism isn’t just a trend…it is a decision to change your lifestyle and eating. A vegan diet also requires a lot of discipline and planning. For teenagers on a vegan diet or those contemplating this approach, it is recommended to consult with an Accredited Practising Dietitian. Our Accredited Practising Dietitians at Eat for Wellness can provide appropriate education to ensure that all your nutritional requirements are being met.