How Do You Stay Vegan Healthy?

Veganism: “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” – www.veganaustralia.org.au

Veganism is a lifestyle and ethical choice growing in popularity. A vegan diet can be enjoyed by people of all ages; whether child, teen or adult, vegans have nutritional requirements that are the same as other people. A healthy vegan diet meets your daily nutritional targets and is more than just the absence of animal products. Only eating hot chips and salad is the same poor nutrition as only eating hamburgers!

Is a vegan diet recommended for kids and teenagers?

Yes, eating a vegan diet is fine for growing people. Parents must be aware of the higher nutrients required in childhood and adolescence as these are times or rapid physical and mental development. Calcium, iron, B12, zinc and Omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important during these times. Multiple experts have concluded independently that vegan diets can be followed safely by infants and children without compromise of nutrition or growth and with some notable health benefits.(2)  (Be aware that adolescents and young adults who follow very restrictive/regimented vegan/vegetarian or other such diets should be screened for eating disorders)

What nutrients should be targeted by vegans?

Iron: Vegans require nearly twice as much iron as their non-vegetarian friends because of reduced bioavailability from their plant based diets. (1) Supplementation may be essential during rapid growth phases such as infancy and adolescence, especially if the child/teen rejects iron rich foods or has a diet high in sugary/junk foods as these deplete stores and limit iron absorption. Regular blood tests can determine your iron levels if you think you may be deficient.

B12: Of all the nutrients B12 (cyanocobalamin) is one of the most difficult for vegans to find as it only occurs in animal products- Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms, and isn’t produced by plants. According to the Vegan Society fortified foods and supplements are the only proven reliable sources for vegans.  Recommended Supplements: take either at least 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly. (5)

B12 deficiency: severe B12 deficiency is a serious condition. B12 plays an important role in the nervous system, DNA and red blood cell formation.  Symptoms may include:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Pins and needles sensations or numbness in the hands, legs, or feet
    • Balance problems including walking or co-ordination (a fall risk in the elderly)
    • Anaemia
    • Blurred vision
    • Swollen, inflamed tongue often with sensitivity (Glossitis) or mouth ulcers
    • Yellowed skin (jaundice)
    • Difficulty thinking, reasoning (cognitive difficulties) or memory loss
    • Mood changes, paranoia or hallucinations
    • Weakness and fatigue

If concerned about your B12 status ask your GP for confirmation with a simple blood test. Long term vegans and adolescents should have regular B12 check-ups to ensure adequate levels are maintained.

Iodine: required for thyroid health, brain development and function, iodine is a must for everyone not just vegans. Sea vegetables- seaweed and algae, mineral rich sea salt (Himalayan pink or Celtic) and fortified foods contain this nutrient. Pregnant and breast feeding women must ensure they are meeting the recommendations needed for baby’s brain development and may require a supplement. Seek guidance from your health professional if you want to take this supplement.

Zinc: An essential trace mineral necessary for immunity, cell division, wound healing and brain health, zinc is in high demand during periods of rapid growth and development (pregnancy, childhood, adolescence). It is easy to meet your zinc targets with zinc rich foods: pumpkin seed, chick peas and cacao are excellent sources. Naturally fermented foods and sprouted grains/seed as they contain bio- available zinc. Despite zinc deficiency being rare in vegan diet, because of the bio-availability issue the recommendation is for 50% higher intake for vegans than those consuming animal products.

Plant based diets high in grains, legumes and pulses contain phytates, antioxidants that inhibit the absorption of zinc and other minerals (iron, calcium). Ensure there is enough of high zinc foods included.

Vitamin D: with few food sources at all most Vitamin D is from sun exposure or supplementation. (There is recent research that suggests mushrooms irradiated with UV light maybe able to provide Vitamin D but as a small study it is not definitive).

Calcium: usually associated with dairy products there are many plant based sources of calcium, some with even more calcium than a glass of milk. Sesame seed, figs, cabbage, leafy green vegetables, chia seeds and almonds are all calcium rich foods that should be enjoyed regularly to support bone, blood and heart health and during rapid skeletal growth in childhood.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids:  The essential omega-3 fat is called alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). ALA can be incorporated in your daily diet with chia or hemp seeds, ground linseed/flaxseed and walnuts. GMO free canola (rapeseed) oil can be used as a cooking oil.Supplementation with omega-3 fats from microalgae may be a particularly important consideration for infants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fats in brain health (please seek guidance from your naturopath/health professional).

Protein: The Vegan Society recommends 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight daily, which translates to: 56-91g for an average man and 46-75g for an average woman per day. Protein sources for vegans includes the following:

Food Protein per 1 cup (approx. 200g)
Hemp seeds 45g
Chia seed 40g
Pumpkin Seeds 32g
Tahini (Sesame seed paste 64g
Nutritional Yeast 64g
Peanut Butter 64g
Almonds 56g
Chick peas 15-18g
Black eyed peas 15-18g
Lentils 15-18g
Black beans 15-18g
Oatmeal (Raw) 10g
Quinoa 8g
Artichokes 8g
Green Peas 8g
Conversion note: 1 cup = 200g = 16 tablespoons

Protein is the building blocks of muscle (includes your heart), immunity, healthy skin and gut. Despite popular belief it is easy to get sufficient protein in a vegan diet if you are informed!

A well balanced vegan diet can meet most nutritional demands. Pulses, legumes and grains the main sources of protein for vegans contain phytates, an antioxidant that can bind certain minerals and block their absorption. Iron, zinc and manganese for example. Phytates have health benefits, so we don’t want to abolish them from a healthy diet. To reduce phytate content cook all of these foods well, don’t consume al dente. Beans and pulses should be soaked thoroughly prior to cooking to diminish phytates content. Soaking will also reduce those windy reactions too!


Article by Desley Hatfield | Naturopath


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References

  1. Amit M. Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2010;15(5):303-308
  2. Di Genova T, Guyda H. Infants and children consuming atypical diets: Vegetarianism and macrobiotics. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2007;12(3):185-188.
  3. Harvard University (2018): https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vitamin-b12-deficiency-can-be-sneaky-harmful
  4. Moilanen, B. (2004). Vegan Diets in Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Pediatrics In Review, 25(5), 174-176. doi:10.1542/pir.25-5-174
  5. Vegan Society: B12, https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/vitamin-b12
Desley Hatfield
Desley Hatfield

Desley Hatfield is a Naturopath whose special interests include stress, fatigue and mental health issues but she is interested in working with anyone who is committed to improving their health and wellbeing. Food as medicine is a major part of Desley’s practice.