Teenage vegans have nutritional needs that are the same as any other teenager. The years between 13 and 19 are times of especially rapid growth and change. Nutritional needs are high during these years. The teenage vegan should follow the same recommendations that are made for all vegans, namely to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The nutrients teenage vegans should be most aware of are protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.
The recommendation for protein is 0.43 grams per pound of weight for 11-13 year-olds and 0.4 grams per pound of weight for 14-18 year-olds. Those exercising strenuously (marathon runners, for example) may need slightly more protein. A 16-year-old who weighs 120 pounds, needs about 48 grams of protein daily. In terms of food, 1 cup of cooked dried beans has about 15 grams of protein, a cup of soy milk has 7 grams, 4 ounces of tofu has 10-11 grams, a tablespoon of peanut butter or peanuts has 4 grams, and 1 slice of bread or 1 cup of grain has about 3 grams.
Fruits, fats, and alcohol do not provide much protein, and so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to support growth. There is no need to take protein supplements. There is no health benefit to eating a very high protein diet and it will not help in muscle building.
During adolescence, calcium is used to build bones. The density of bones is determined in adolescence and young adulthood, and so it is important to include good sources of calcium in a teenager’s diet every day.
Cow’s milk and dairy products do contain calcium. However, there are other good sources of calcium such as tofu processed with calcium sulfate, green leafy vegetables including collard greens, mustard greens, and kale, as well as tahini (sesame butter), fortified soy milk, and fortified orange juice.
By eating a varied diet, a vegan can meet his or her iron needs, while avoiding the excess fat and cholesterol found in red meats such as beef or pork. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, eat a food containing vitamin C as part of the meal. Citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli are all good sources of vitamin C. Foods that are high in iron include broccoli, watermelon, spinach, black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses, chickpeas, and pinto beans.
It is important to consume adequate vitamin B12 during adolescence. Vitamin B12 is not found in plants. Some cereals have vitamin B12 (check the label). Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast supplies vitamin B12.
Many teenagers are concerned with losing or gaining weight. To lose weight, look at the diet. If it has lots of sweet or fatty foods, replace them with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. If a diet already seems healthy, increased exercise — walking, running, or swimming daily — can help control weight. To gain weight, more calories are needed. Perhaps eating more often or eating foods somewhat higher in fat and lower in bulk will help. Try to eat three or more times a day whether you are trying to gain weight or lose weight. It is hard to get all of the nutritious foods you need if you only eat one meal a day. If you feel that you cannot control your eating behavior or if you are losing a great deal of weight, you should discuss this with your health care provider.
Often, there is just not enough time to eat. Below are some foods that kids can eat as snacks on the run. Some of these foods can be found in fast-food restaurants — check the menu. Ideas for snacks that you can carry from home include: apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, dried fruits, bagels and peanut butter, carrot or celery sticks, popcorn, pretzels, soy cheese pizza, bean tacos or burritos, salad, soy yogurt, soy milk, rice cakes, sandwiches, and frozen juice bars.
Image source: CTU Cafeteria/Wikimedia Commons