So Your Daughter Wants to be Vegan...

Hi! Malina Malkani here, registered dietitian nutritionist and mom of three girls, specializing in pediatric and women’s health.

In my private practice, I’m approached on a pretty regular basis by parents who are concerned because their tween or teen girl has gone vegetarian or vegan. 

Plant-based eating has become more trendy and mainstream over the past few years, but for some, the concept of meatless meals is pretty radical. Top concerns are that kids won’t get enough protein, calcium, iron and energy, and that plant-based eating won’t be enough to sustain growth and development.

The good news is that we have decades of research studies now showing that vegetarian and vegan eating patterns can absolutely provide all the necessary nutrients people need to thrive, grow and/or develop during all ages of the life cycle (including the tween and teen years). 

Plant-based diets have also been shown to lower the risk of developing chronic lifestyle diseases like hypertension, diabetes and heart disease down the road. The key word, however is CAN, because nutrient gaps can happen easily in vegan and vegetarian diets that are poorly planned. 

If your tween or teen daughter is considering or already adopting a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern, the worst thing you can do is tell her she can’t.

Whatever your thoughts and opinions happen to be with regard to plant-based eating, as parents, we have very little (if any) control over what our tweens and teens eat. Educating both yourself and your daughter on how to ensure a balanced, varied vegetarian and/or vegan diet that includes all the essential nutrients is a great way to both connect, show support for her choices, and set her up for a lifetime of healthy eating no matter which dietary pattern she ends up following.

Here are 5 things to know as well as some related tips for making sure your vegetarian/vegan tween or teen daughter is getting all the nutrients she needs to thrive:

1. Vegetarian girls who eat dairy and eggs will have an easier time meeting their nutrient needs than vegans (who do not eat dairy and eggs), as dairy foods are a great source of calcium and vitamin D, and both dairy and eggs provide all of the essential amino acids needed for normal growth.

2. If your daughter is vegan and/or does not drink cow’s milk, spend some time and energy finding a fortified plant-based milk alternative that she likes and will drink regularly. Soy milk offers a nutrient profile that is closest to that of cow’s milk and when fortified with calcium and vitamin D, offers a convenient way to make sure tweens and teens are getting the nutrients they need for proper bone growth. Not all plant-based milk alternatives are fortified, however, so it’s important to read food labels.

3. Sometimes it can be tricky to get enough overall calories on a vegetarian or vegan diet, both of which tend to be lower in fat but higher in fiber (more whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, etc.). More fiber means more filling, which can lead to a lower intake of calories in general. Encouraging your daughter to eat often (around 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day) and include a variety of energy-rich plant-based foods like avocado, nuts, seeds and legumes can help.

4. Discuss ways to ensure that vegan and vegetarian meals and snacks are balanced and nutrient-dense, and that they include plant-based proteins (beans, legumes, soy foods, nuts, seeds or dairy/eggs if vegetarian), complex carbohydrates with fiber (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, peas, legumes, beans) and sources of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut, avocado).

5. Talk to your daughter’s pediatrician or registered dietitian about the potential need for supplements, particularly if your child is vegan, in which case supplemental B12 is essential and the potential for vitamin D, iodine, iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids should be discussed.

Helping tweens and teens plan and stick to a healthy vegetarian and/or vegan diet takes effort on everyone’s part - parents, caregivers and kids alike. But when everyone is on board, going through the process of learning how to meet nutrient needs using plant foods can provide unique opportunities for bonding between parents and kids, as well as lifelong skills that will enable girls to properly nourish themselves in the long term.

Cheers to your good health!

 

Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN