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Anaemia

Updated 10 June 2019

'My teen no longer wants to eat meat' - How to incorporate a plant-based diet without risking anaemia

Whether your teenager wants to start following a vegetarian or vegan diet for ethical or health reasons, it’s important to include key nutrients to prevent potential iron-deficiency anaemia.

Your teenager storms into the kitchen and makes a sudden announcement – she no longer wants to eat meat. You feel helpless, but you don’t want to stand in the way of her life choices.

But the reality is that teenagers are especially at risk for iron-deficiency anaemia if healthy iron levels are not achieved. This is because of rapid growth spurts that require plenty of key nutrients. The risk of iron-deficiency anaemia in adolescent females is even higher because of the monthly loss of menstrual blood, according to Dr Sue Hubbard.

With more awareness surrounding the impact of meat on the environment, it’s not surprising that teenagers want to take a stance. Vegetarian and vegan options are becoming more viable than ever, and it’s become easier to follow a plant-based lifestyle.

While a plant-based diet can be balanced and certainly doesn’t have to involve low iron levels, a lack of education on a balanced vegetarian/vegan diet and not being aware of different options can put your teenager at risk of malnutrition.

Know the reasons

Your first step should be to determine the reasoning behind your child’s decision.

According to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association , the most common reason teens wanted to convert to vegetarianism was to either lose weight or prevent weight gain.

As vegetarianism or veganism cuts out entire food groups, it might, however, be a slippery slope to unbalanced nutrition if not carefully monitored.

But as this study is a few years old, the reasoning might be outdated.

There is a general call on us to reduce our meat intake, and teenagers are more aware of environmental issues than ever before.

Sit down with your teenager and talk about the reasons why she wants to cut out meat. It’s not helpful to directly oppose your child’s decision.

Talk to your child about the consequences of her decision and what type of lifestyle she will follow – will she be excluding all animal by-products or only meat?

By being supportive, you can help determine whether this sudden dietary decision is done for the right reasons, and monitored properly.

Here are tips to help your teenager to a healthy, safe transition:

1. Call in the medical professionals

If your teenager is willing, go for a medical examination so that a doctor can establish her existing iron levels and weight. This will help you to determine whether it’s safe to undertake a plant-based diet and whether she should include an iron-supplement in her daily routine.

2.  Include enough sources of protein

Stock up on pulses and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans as these are an excellent source of fibre and protein.

3. Make a meal of it – literally

Instead of sneering at your teenager’s decision, make this a time for bonding – shop together for groceries and research recipes together. Who knows, there might even be a plant-based recipe that will convert the hardiest carnivore in the family.

Helping your teenager shop for groceries will give you a level of control over her iron levels, ensuring that she stays healthy. Looking for ideas? This article by Health24's nutritionists might help you.

4. It’s all about fruit and vegetables

Ensure that your teenagers consume enough fruit and vegetables rich in vitamin C as this will help the body absorb more iron.

5. Monitor her health

We don't suggest that you play food police 24/7, but check in regularly to ensure that she is not suffering from telltale anaemia symptoms like fatigue and a severe lack of concentration.

Have her iron levels checked as soon as she starts complaining of extreme tiredness and not feeling well in general. If her periods are extremely heavy, she should also monitor herself carefully for symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia.

6. Be open about eating disorders

Not every teenager wanting to cut out meat does this for the purpose of losing weight, but it’s important to know when your teenager’s eating becomes disordered. This article about parenting and eating disorders might guide the conversation. 

7. Choose your starches carefully

Opt for wholegrain products, as these contain more nutrients than bleached, white bread. Choose cereals and breads that are fortified with iron. Wholegrain products will also release energy more slowly, ensuring that your teenager stays fuller for longer.

8. Choose almond butter over peanut butter

It may be more expensive, but nut butters such as almond and cashew butter generally contain more minerals such as zinc than traditional peanut butter.  

9. Choose fats wisely

Omega-3 fats are essential for your developing teenager. Fish is often a good source, but if your child is no longer eating meat, include plant-based sources of healthy fats in her diet. This includes nuts and good-quality olive oil.

10. Follow the important nutrient checklist

According to the Sutter Health Palo Alto Medical Foundation, it’s important to ensure that your teen is not only getting enough iron, but also folic acid and vitamin B12, as these nutrients also play an important part in producing healthy red blood cells.

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