Congratulations, your kid or teen walked out of school last month and joined the global Climate Strike, chanted about saving the planet, and then came home wanting to go vegan, just like Greta.
First of all: Well done! You’ve raised a smart and compassionate little human.
Now just try not to freak out. Though it can seem like a daunting endeavour, removing all meat, dairy and eggs from your kids’ meals — fear not. It can be done, and done safely, and can have a hugely positive effect on the planet.
With more and more research pointing to animal agriculture as a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, ocean degradation, deforestation, and wildlife and biodiversity-loss, your kid is right in thinking going vegan can help the planet. In fact, forgoing the consumption of animal products can reduce one’s carbon footprint by up to 73 percent, and cut one’s water footprint by at least half (both depending on where you live). One University of Oxford scientist, Joseph Poore, says the effects are “far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.” And if we all went vegan, 75 percent less land would be required to feed everyone.
So yeah — wise choice, kid.
There is also all we now know about the sentience of animals — how they can and do feel fear, stress and pain — and about the cruelties inherent in modern animal agriculture. Going vegan prevents the future breeding and brutal slaughtering of one animal every single day.
Of course, it is to be expected that some parents may be concerned that removing all meat, dairy and eggs from their kid’s or teen’s diet could possibly be unsafe or even harmful, to growing bodies. Many of us have for so long been told that these foods are not only normal and natural to consume, but very necessary, in order to gain nutrients such as protein and calcium. But as Dr. Pamela Fergusson, a registered dietician with a Phd in nutrition and over 15 experience explains, it is absolutely safe for growing young people to forgo the consumption of all animal products. It can even be beneficial.
“Many parents of newly vegan kids are worried their children will develop a protein deficiency, or that they will become malnourished,” says Dr. Fergusson, when asked about common misconceptions regarding plant based eating. But, as she cites, “the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a position paper, stating that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including a vegan diet, can be safe for people in all stages of life, including childhood and adolescence.” Dr. Fergusson even adds that because “chronic diseases often start developing in childhood and adolescence, this is a wonderful time to go vegan and develop healthy eating habits, to help protect your children against our biggest killers: diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”
Dr. Fergusson recognizes that for anyone choosing to be vegan, a diet that is well-planned is key. “But keep in mind that’s true for all eating patterns,” she says. “Just like with any eating pattern, it’s important to limit processed and convenience foods, to focus more on whole foods, and to eat foods from a broad spectrum of food groups,” even those exclusively derived from plants. “Within the plant-based diet that would include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), and also nuts and seeds.” As long as kids are choosing a variety of foods from across that spectrum,” she says, “they should have no problem meeting their protein requirements.”
If calcium is your concern, Dr. Fergusson says that is also easy to get on a plant based diet. “Beans, greens, nuts and seeds are all good sources of calcium,” as are calcium fortified plant based beverages (think soy, oat, hemp milks, etc.), “which contain the same amount of calcium per cup as dairy milk.” Just be sure to always shake your carton, she says, as fortification can settle.
There are some vitamins Dr. Fergusson suggests supplementing, including B12 and vitamin D, but clarifies the latter is not exclusive to those on a plant based diet. “Vitamin D is a common deficiency among those living in the northern hemisphere. It’s a recommendation I would make for everyone, that supplementing vitamin D in the winter can be useful.”
Adolescent girls, she say, regardless if they are eating a vegan or omnivore diet, may need to be extra cognizant of iron intake. Dr. Fergusson recommends pairing vitamin C rich foods (squeeze or lemon juice, tomato sauce, glass of OJ), with iron rich foods like beans and greens, to aid in optimal iron absorption. Sometimes an iron supplement may be needed temporarily.
A mother to vegan children herself, Dr. Fergusson says that if your child or teen suddenly wants to be vegan, “it’s a time to celebrate your child’s compassionate heart,” but adds, it is also important to allow for dialogue regarding feelings about animals and the planet. “When children and youth realize what’s happening to animals and the planet it can be overwhelming,” she says. “A lot of children and youth are reporting that they are experiencing climate anxiety.” Directing young people towards activities with like-minded peers, such as age-appropriate activism, volunteering opportunities, like at a sanctuary, marching for the climate, “or writing for a student newspaper,” for example, can be helpful, she says, along with talking through their feelings, with you or a professional.
As Dr. Fergusson concludes, not only can a plant based diet be physically safe and healthy for young people, but allowing children to eat and live in a way that may better align with their personal ethics, can also be psychologically beneficial.
“It may help them to reduce some of the anxiety they feel around the current state of the planet, and as they become aware of the state of animals within animal agriculture. Knowing that they are not personally contributing to that system and that they are taking a stand ethically, may be comforting and empowering to them.”