Ask The Doctors: The Transition To A Vegan Diet Must Be Gradual Health, medicine and fitness
Dear doctors: Our 16 year old daughter wants to go vegan. Her dad and I think maybe it’s a bit extreme, so we made a compromise, and first she’s going to try to be a vegetarian. What’s the right way for a growing teenager to make the transition safely?
Dear reader: We are both parents ourselves, so we understand your concerns about meeting your daughter’s nutritional needs. A vegan diet, which cuts out all foods derived from living things – including eggs, dairy, gelatin, and honey – can send you on a steep learning curve. Even the most forgiving parameters of a vegetarian diet ensure that they are healthy and balanced.
As with any diet, the goal is to get enough calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals from a wide range of fresh, healthy foods. The good news is that vegetarian and vegan diets are very popular. This means that the information and products your daughter needs to be a healthy vegetarian are widely available.
By following a vegetarian diet, your daughter will no longer eat red meat, poultry, fish or other seafood. Vegetarians can choose whether or not to eat eggs and dairy products. (Some, called pescatarians, include fish in their diet.)
While it can be tempting to dive into the deep end with a new lifestyle choice, we suggest a gradual transition. Instead of eliminating meat, start by adding a variety of foods to your daughter’s current diet. This includes tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains that will become the staples of his new way of eating. Once she’s familiar with and comfortable with these new foods, she can start eating them instead of the meat-based meal that the rest of the family eats. One vegetarian we know made an easy transition by eliminating one category of meat at a time. She started with beef and every few weeks stopped eating another type of meat. Within months, she had achieved her goal of becoming a vegetarian.
When it comes to nutrition, you want to keep an eye on B12, a vitamin that is essential for proper functioning of the body’s nerve and blood cells. B12 also plays a role in DNA synthesis and helps prevent megaloblastic anemia, which causes weakness and exhaustion. In addition to meat and fish, B12 is found in milk, cheese, eggs and some fortified cereals. Several studies have shown that even vegetarians who consume eggs and milk can become deficient in B12, so a supplement may be a good idea.
People who no longer consume meat should also ensure that they are getting enough calcium, iron, zinc, and protein. Protein needs can be met by eating a variety of beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products, as well as eggs and dairy products.
A few good vegetarian cookbooks will be essential tools in providing varied and healthy meals and snacks. We also think it would be wise for your daughter to meet with a registered dietitian to learn about nutritional guidelines for her new lifestyle.