When south Charlotte mom Elise Allistic’s daughter became vegan, she didn’t think her daughter would eventually become anemic and have more health problems.
She realized her daughter wasn’t going about the diet in the right way.
A recent poll by independent research firm Harris Interactive reveals the number of vegetarian youth in the U.S. has increased 70 percent in the last few years and vegan products becoming more accessible in the last decade. Experts are warning new vegans – particularly teens, who grew up in a world of convenience food – they need to become more cognizant of their food selections.
Jennifer Logan, a dietician with Novant Health, said she works with clients one-on-one for their dietary needs or preferences. With vegans, she starts by asking why they want to pursue that lifestyle. A teen she met with last week said she wanted to be vegan because she heard Beyoncé follows that diet, while others are fueled by animal welfare and environmental impact causes.
“Veganism is becoming more of a fad in some aspects,” Logan said, adding veganism has an increased presence on social media.
The “Vegetarianism in America” study published by Vegetarian Times stated 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet. Approximately 0.5 percent, or 1 million, of those are vegans, who consume no animal products at all.
Although individuals pursue vegan or vegetarian diets, they might not eat natural, healthy food.
Oreos, unfrosted Pop-Tarts and Sara Lee’s frozen cherry pies are technically vegan. Logan said many of her patients will eat fried potato chips or processed veggie burgers.
Teens often have a pattern of eating more processed food, she added, which have a lot of added sodium, preservatives, flavor additives and added sugars.
“The challenge is being more savvy about what foods you choose, such as beans, nuts and whole grains,” Logan said. “To be healthy and choose the highest quality takes more meal preparation.”
Teenagers are often on the go and will choose more convenience options, such as fast food, which often have unhealthy nutrients like excess salt or sugar.
Vegan diets require individuals to be more conscious of their food they choose, as they must augment some nutrients they would get in meat with other products or supplement.
“In some instances, I’d rather have a teen eat what mom’s cooking rather than frozen soy chicken nuggets,” Logan said. “I don’t think they realize that a veggie burger is considered a processed food or chicken nuggets are a processed food.”
She recommends anyone interested in becoming vegan meet with a dietician. It’s possible to be healthy following a vegan diet, but when you eliminate a whole food group, it’s important to note ways to ensure nutrient needs are met.
For example, B12 doesn’t naturally come from plants, so individuals have to find it elsewhere through supplements, nutritional yeast or fortified foods, such as breads and cereal.
If a person develops a B12 deficiency, they could become tired, develop nerve damage or a type of anemia, depression or have unhealthy weight loss.
Courtney Huddle, a dietician with Carolinas HealthCare System and vegetarian, explained vegetarians have to eat more food to ensure they receive enough nutrients.
“You don’t have to eat a large quantity of animal meat to get enough protein,” Huddle said. “Vegans will have to eat a whole lot more of (products with protein) to receive enough.”
She suggests vegans look to find nutrients in multiple foods rather than just one food.
“Becoming vegan doesn’t mean you’re starving yourself,” Huddle said. “You have to get the same amount of calories – just in a different way.”
She feels parents need to be involved in learning about vegan options. She said many meals could be made vegan or vegetarian.
“There are alternatives where you don’t have to feel like you have to serve lettuce,” Huddle said.
Alea Tuttle, an environmental scientist with Wildlands Engineering, chose a vegan lifestyle because she didn’t appreciate the environmental impacts of the food industry.
When Tuttle was in high school, she formed a club of likeminded students who also had a vegetarian diet. She felt the transition into a vegetarian diet was much easier when she had a support network.
Tuttle said the most critical part about pursuing veganism is to find a support network.
“In my experience, every time I’ve been successful pursing the vegan diet, I’ve had a support network of people,” she said.
Huddle said many Charlotte-area support groups could be found with a simple Google search or on Reddit or MeetUp.