In my practice, I find that young people, especially girls, begin to explore vegan eating after watching a documentary that may be sensational, or even alarming, in parts. And although this is worrying in terms of making sure that people get a balance of nutrients, my view is that veganism isn’t just a passing trend. It’s here to stay, and so it needs to be considered within the context of a varied eating pattern.
Why is it a movement?
You just need to look around you to see how this is becoming big business. Anyone who’s been to coffee shops like Pret in the last 6 months could be tempted to try a vegan or veggie diet – they have an entire section of each of their shops dedicated to it. Anyone who shops in Tesco could be influenced to try the vegan diet as they scour shelves with a massive new range of plant based ready meals and sandwiches. Anyone who reads Time Out could be influenced to try the vegan diet due to the myriad of new vegan cafes and restaurants popping up all over London, pretty much every week. Anyone who sat on London Underground this month could be influenced to try the vegan diet as they read the “Veganuary” tube adverts. More on Veganuary.
Dietary change needs to be carefully considered
There are limited studies specifically on vegan diets, so it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about the long-term health benefits. Vegan eating tends to be lower in calories and saturated fats than non-vegetarian diets, and typically, vegans have been shown to be slimmer, and have lower cholesterol levels. Having a lower BMI may also help to protect against certain cancers. But as yet, there simply isn’t enough research to suggest that we should all turn to vegan eating, and indeed, certain groups who may be tempted to go vegan need to be mindful of meeting their nutritional needs.
What young people need to watch
- Calories. It may be tempting to opt for a vegan diet to lose weight. Chances are, you will lose weight, and that’s helpful if you’re overweight and need to address that. But many of the girls I see do not have a weight issue. Plant-based foods tend to be lower in calories, so they need to be advised on making sure they eat regular meals and snacks to allow them to take enough food over the day.
- Calcium. Dairy foods are the richest sources of calcium. Teenage life is a time of rapid growth and about half the strength of the adult skeleton is laid down in adolescence. Many dairy-free milk and yogurt alternatives aren’t fortified with calcium, and those that are may not have the same amount of calcium as dairy products. Check labels and compare the “calcium per 100g” figure with milk or yogurt. A teenage girl needs 800mg calcium per day.
- Iron. You need more iron during adolescence to help with growth and muscle development. Red meat is a rich source of iron, but you can also get iron from plant foods: choose dark-green vegetables, such as kale and broccoli, lentils and beans (especially dark coloured ones like green mung beans), nuts, and breakfast cereals that are fortified with iron. Teenage girls need 14.8 mg of iron each day.
- B12. You need this vitamin for healthy blood and a healthy nervous system, but you only find it in animal foods. Make sure you have foods that are fortified with vitamin B12, such as breakfast cereals, soya drinks, and yeast extract (such as Marmite). You may need a supplement of B12.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Since these are found mainly in fish, you need to get yours elsewhere. Vegan sources include walnuts, linseed oil, rapeseed oil, soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu. Note they may not have the same cardio-protective effects as the type of omega 3 fats you find in oily fish.
Switching to eating more plant based foods is a good thing. But a strict vegan diet is very hard to get right, and you need to make sure you’re thinking about where you’ll get your nutrients from. Ideally, seek professional advice from a registered dietitian.
Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: What do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1607S-1612S.
Craig WJ. Health effects of vegan diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1627S-1633S.
Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Diet and body mass index in 38,000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003;27(6):728-734.