“Mom, let’s go vegan.” These are words that can strike fear into any parent’s heart. I first heard them last fall from my 13-year-old daughter Sage. I blame the magazine VegNews, a publication that has been arriving at my house for several years, a hang-over from a previous career. The nation’s premiere vegan lifestyle publication, VegNews is stuffed with the kind of vegan propaganda (yummy recipes, health news tilted toward a vegan viewpoint, and non-confrontational animal rights news) that can tip those inclined toward vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons over the edge into veganism.
For the uninitiated, vegetarians decline to eat animal flesh, i.e. chicken, beef and other meat, as well as seafood. Vegans abstain from all animal products, including meats and seafood as well as eggs, dairy products, and animal-derived foods like honey or gelatin. Many avoid wearing leather or silk as well.
As the fall progressed, Sage’s arguments got more insistent. “Cows contribute to global warming.”
“Factory farmed chickens have a terrible life.”
“But we wouldn’t be eating that much different than we do now.”
It was that last one that got me on the bandwagon. She was right. Sage has been a vegetarian since birth (though I am an omnivore), and most of our dinners already consisted of veggies; some sort of grain; and tofu, tempeh, or beans. I knew that the only thing that would really hurt was breaking my over-reliance on cheese quesadillas as a quick dinner.
But what about nutrition?
I asked Belinda Zeidler, a professor of nutrition at Portland State University, if a vegan diet was healthy for teens. “Teens can be healthy vegans if they aren’t picky eaters,” she replied. “Vegans, whether they are teens or adults, need to eat a broad variety of foods, including whole grains and grain-type products like quinoa, bulgur, farro, etc., as well as legumes, nuts, and lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables.”
Check. I was already buying the Costco-sized bag of quinoa every month, and our cupboards were overflowing with beans of all kinds, from homely pintos to heirloom varieties from Rancho Gordo. We both loved all kinds of fruit and veggies.
Zeidler also cautioned that, even the healthiest vegan diets are low in a few nutrients. Iron is one of them, as red meat is the most common source of it in the American diet. “The plant form of iron is not absorbed as well as animal sources,” she noted. “Vegans should make sure to get lots of dark leafy greens and legumes.” (Next month, Rebecca Taggart will have an in-depth look at the ins and outs of dietary iron).
“In addition, all vegans need to take a supplement of B12, since it is only found in animal products,” Zeidler says. Pernicious anemia brought on by a deficiency of vitamin B12 is nothing to mess around with; it could affect the heart, lungs, and nerves. “Other nutrients that could be an issue include Vitamin D, calcium, and zinc,” she added.
While I generally prefer to eat whole foods to packaged foods, now I am careful to have a few fortified staples in the house most of the time. I buy fortified alternative milks by the case; each serving of the brand I buy has 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of B12 and 25 percent of our calcium needs. Combined with a fortified breakfast cereal, calcium-set tofu, and the occasional package of fortified fake meat, we’re good to go.
With more and more people interested in a vegan diet as a result of high profile transitions to veganism like President Bill Clinton and the movie Forks over Knives (which explores the claim that most degenerative diseases can be reversed by eating only whole plant-based foods), it’s pretty easy nowadays to find vegan products and menu items. Food marketers and restaurateurs are starting to cater to this previously under-tapped market. And while I’m grateful that my daughter can get a slice of vegan pizza at several different pizzerias here in Portland, this increased availability of certain types of vegan food isn’t an unalloyed good. I asked Zeidler, who looks at hundreds of students’ three-day food logs each year, what pitfalls teens and young adults need to avoid when transitioning to a vegan diet. “There are lots of processed foods available to vegans that are full of sugar, fat, and white flour, which provide little beyond empty calories. I've seen vegan students consume all sorts of sugary beverages and lots of white bread. Over the long haul this could lead to obesity, diabetes, and nutritional deficiencies. The other common issue I see is the reliance on soy as the predominant protein. It's important to eat a variety of foods and eating a ton of soy may not be the best choice.”
June 2013 marks six months since my daughter and I went vegan-only in our house, and so far, so good. Neither of us has developed severe osteoporosis or pernicious anemia. I can still bench-press 115 pounds. Sage is also learning some valuable skills about how to speak up and ask for what she needs in social situations, without making other people feel bad about their own food choices. And that might be one of the best outcomes of all.
Remember to always consult your healthcare professional before making major dietary or exercise changes.
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based writer, editor, health coach, and personal trainer.
Top Four Easy Vegan Dishes
Quesadillas: It’s as easy to make vegan quesadillas as any other—just find a vegan cheese you like. Many alternative cheeses have casein, a dairy protein, so make sure to read labels carefully. Don’t forget, Soyrizo makes everything better.
Cold “Noodles” with Peanut Sauce: Use a mandoline or sharp knife to slice two medium-sized zucchini into long, thin, noodle-like strips. Top with peanut sauce (or better yet, sunflower seed butter sauce). Make your own nut butter sauce by combining a half-cup of nut butter with 2 Tablespoons light soy sauce, a minced clove of garlic, a 1-inch piece of grated ginger, and enough water or veggie broth to thin. Serve peanut sauce noodles topped with sesame seeds and chopped scallions.
Barbecue Tempeh: Slice tempeh and brush with olive oil. Grill until crispy. Brush on barbecue sauce. Or, alternatively, cube tempeh and steam for five minutes. In a small saucepan, combine the steamed tempeh with barbecue sauce and simmer. Serve on a soft roll.
White Beans and Chard: Sauté a can of drained, rinsed white beans in a little olive oil with a clove of garlic. Add one bunch of chard, finely chopped. Cook until the chard is tender and the white beans are slightly crusty. Season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of fresh sage and/or thyme.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.