Vegan Teens Series Part 2: "I'm a Vegan Teen in a Non-Vegan Family"
It's finally time for part 2 of our vegan teens series! In part 1 we talked about what can happen when parents decide to go vegan and they have a resistant teenager at home that may not want to start eating this way. I gave you tons of tips for keeping the peace at home, inspiring without relying on the outcome, how to ensure that no matter what you do or your teenager decides to do, that the number one priority is to infuse a sense of "normal" and balance to food and the act of eating. Today though, the parents are not my audience. This post is specifically for you my dear teen! If you then decide to show mom and dad this article in the hopes that they understand what you're going through if they've been resistant, feel welcome to, but this post and podcast episode is for you.
Let me start this off by saying that although I'm in my mid-thirties as I write this, I work with teenagers and I remember being a teenager extremely well. I can say without a doubt, that due to my life circumstances and the fact that very often I was the odd one out (you can read more about my personal story with food here, and my "always feeling like an outsider" story here), my teens were the hardest years of my life (with their amazingly cool moments too!). I know you hear people giving you the speech of how things get more complicated after you become an adult and have responsibilities, work and the like, but let me tell you this: that was NOT my experience. If you're a teen who is struggling right now, with going vegan or anything else, life is going to get so much better once your teen years are behind you and you have more autonomy to live your life the way you want to live it. This may not be everyone's experience, Carlos for one still remembers his teenage years as some of the happiest of his life, but it certainly was mine. I am however going to fill this post and episode with countless tips that are going to help you move that timeframe forward, so things can start becoming sweeter and easier right now, at least when it comes to making the switch to a vegan diet as a teenager.. We're going to talk about a ton of stuff so get ready.
Important Issues and Tips for Vegan Teens in Non-Vegan Families and Communities
When you take the plunge and decide to go vegan, and
why parents react the way they do,
If you're reading this, you've probably already taken or decided to take the plunge. You maybe read a book, watched a couple of documentaries on Netflix, where inspired by a video you saw or someone you talked to, and you're feeling motivated to make a change. Then you come home to tell mom and dad and three mains scenarios can occur. In the first, parents give you a hug for being such an activist and being motivated, and they might even say they want to join you. In the second, they're a little concerned, mom is immediately talking about what she's going to make for dinner now and how she's going to tell your barbecue loving grandparents, but she kind of gets it and still wants to support you (she also immediately hits Amazon and gets all the books she can find on the subject). In the third scenario, you hit a brick wall. Your parents joke around, tell you you won't last a day, and as the days go by, and they feel you're serious about it, concerns kick in, comments about tradition and nutrient deficiencies kick in, you might even encounter some anger on their part, and you feel you're on your own. This post and episode is meant to help you with the second and mostly the third scenario.
Let me tell you it's more than normal for parents to be worried and concerned if they themselves haven't gone through the process you have when learning about a vegan diet. Second, let's break their worries down. What I find is usually behind this strong resistance from parents are three little factors:
- Fear of loss of tradition.
- Fear of adequate nutrition.
- The mirror effect.
Many parents react strongly when they hear the news because they can feel you're rejecting their choices and the way they raised you. They're afraid of losing family traditions. This is especially the case for families with hunting or fishing traditions, barbecues every Saturday, families that come from meat centric cultures, etc. Then there's that mirror effect that happens with every single person on this planet.
Have you noticed that many times when you tell someone you're vegan they immediately start talking about their eating habits saying things like "oh I couldn't live without meat", or "I really don't eat that much meat". That's the mirror effect! People often feel that by you shedding a light on a change in your own habits, you're also shining a light on theirs. They see themselves in that imaginary mirror that makes them wonder "should I be doing this too?". For some it can be a great aha moment. For others it's just a point of major resistance.
By understanding where parents are coming from when they have these strong reactions, you'll be able to not take them as personally. Give them time to see that you're sticking to it, then give them time to get over the worry that you'll get everything you need when it comes to nutrition. Then give them time to release their own resistance which has much more to do with them than with you.
Reassure them that mealtime will still be business as usual, that being vegan is only about exchanging a meat-based ingredient for a plant-based one to make the same dishes you all used to share together, and that you still honor and respect the way they raised you and are simply making a new choice for yourself. One that will hopefully still include them and all the fun family food moments you enjoy together. Have some videos or posts on nutrition handy so you can ease their minds too, and for that you can simply share the ones I'll be sharing below!
Coming out of the vegan closet: Telling friends and family
Coming out into the world and speaking your truth no matter what that is, is HARD! As teens especially we're worried of not fitting in, of what people's reactions will be, we're dealing with peer pressure, media pressure, societal and family pressures, academic pressures, and the difficulty of finding our own sense of identity and self-esteem. When coming out of the vegan closet, the key is grabbing as much confidence as you can muster, even if you have to fake it a little at first, and just announce that you've decided to go vegan with your head held high. Reassure friends and family that things aren't really going to change for them, that all that will change is the food on your plate. If mom is worried about it being extra work, offer to help and actually do it (more on this below). After reading this post you'll have tons of tools that you can include in that "declaration of independence" to ease your parents' mind, and when it comes to friends, just ease it into regular conversation. The bigger a deal you make of it, the bigger the reaction you'll get. Make it easy on them and don't pay attention to the first line of reactions you get. They will all change with time, especially as veganism is becoming more and more mainstream and they begin to see vegan products everywhere, hear about it in the news, in books, on Netflix, even in fast food restaurants these days. If jokes are made, try to brush them off. If people are worried or get angry, just know that this is normal, and that even if they never share your views, they'll learn to accept it and respect it. I know it's easier said than done to say "be confident when you tell people", but it's your secret weapon. More on becoming a confidence ninja below!
Getting the nutrients you need
Spoiler alert! Depending on who inspired you to go vegan, I might be the first voice you encounter who gives you this very important message: A vegan diet is not magical.
Let me say that again: a vegan diet is not magical.
It's like any dietary choice, you can have a balanced way of eating, making sure you're getting all the nutrients you need, or you can eat a vegan diet of potato chips, oreos and Ben and Jerry's vegan ice cream and call it a day. The latter of course won't sustain you or your energy requirements for very long right? Knowing how to balance your plate is very important, making sure you're eating meals that include: starchy carbohydrates/grains (like rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, pasta, bread, quinoa, etc), vegan proteins (like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, vegan meats, veggie burgers, peanuts or peanut butter, peas, quinoa, etc.), vegetables (like kale, tomatoes, lettuce greens, peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn, beets, green beans, asparagus, artichokes, carrots, celery, eggplant, squash, zucchini, and countless others), fruits (like berries, bananas, apples, pears, mangoes, pineapple, kiwi, oranges, watermelon, grapes and countless others), healthy fats (like avocados, guacamole, nut butters, tahini (sesame seed paste) or other seed butters) and nuts and seeds, and fun foods that make you happy and feel satisfied (things like vegan cheeses, non-dairy ice cream, vegan meat alternatives, olive oil, non-dairy butter, vegan snacks, vegan desserts etc). Making sure you're getting all the food groups in, that you're honoring your hunger, getting enough calories for your activity levels and that you're also LOVING and having fun with the food you're eating without adding unnecessary restriction.
It's also a non-negotiable to supplement your diet with vitamin B-12 (here's a great guide to B12 supplementation) and your doctor might recommend additional supplements when needed, or a multivitamin.
It doesn't take endless planning or to be perfect at calculating every food that passes your lips, in fact, in my experience there's none of that. It's simply all about thinking of eating a normal plate of food, with plant-based ingredients as opposed to meat-based ones.
- I love using The Plant Plate as a Guide, created by the wonderful registered dietitian nutritionist Virginia Messina:
- Here's how you can read the chart: Understanding The Plant Plate
- Here's an example of a few meals you can assemble:
- Black bean burritos with salsa, guacamole, lots of shredded romaine lettuce, some hot sauce if you like it, some shredded or melted vegan cheese.
- A veggie burger in its bun with all the fixings, fries and ketchup of course!
- Pasta with marinara sauce and vegan meat crumbles or chopped mushrooms or lentils instead of ground beef, top it with some vegan cheese, or my favorite parmesan alternative: ground almonds mixed with sea salt. Some salad on the side with lots of greens, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, cucumber, your favorite dressing.
- Get some vegan burgers or sausages, or alternate tofu cubes marinated in your favorite barbecue sauce with some onions and peppers, place them on skewers and pop any of these on the grill next time your family has a barbecue. Have some corn on the cob on the side, and ask if this time the potato salad or coleslaw can be made with eggless mayo instead of egg based mayo (people won't know the difference!).
- A quick bowl with any leftover rice, quinoa or sweet potatoes (just raid the fridge!), some veggies, black beans (yes! you can buy them pre-made in a can if you don't have any made from scratch), top with some avocado and salsa or any sauce you like.
- I could keep you here forever, rest assured you can make any dish you love in its vegan version. ANY DISH! Trust me, I veganize stuff for a living, there's nothing you can't make a vegan version of.
- Here are some great books that could be very helpful, especially when it comes to nutrition:
Other "keep the peace at home" tips: Cooking, shopping and helping out
For our caregivers, part of their resistance to our switch to a vegan diet has to do with their fear of having to do extra work at mealtimes. For this I have very important advice: start helping out in whatever way you can, sometimes it's as simple as chopping something, keeping your mom or dad company when they shop or cook, or even learning how to make dinner yourself on some nights. The simple fact of you participating more in the process, might be your biggest ally when getting mom or dad to respect this change. Suddenly it goes from "my son has just decided to go vegan, as if I didn't have enough work in the kitchen already" to: "my son is now even spending time with me and helping out, looks like this vegan thing had its perks after all!".
Dealing with peer pressure and friendships
Adults keep talking about the pressure they feel after they are out "in the real world" dealing with work, having a family, paying the bills, etc., I think they forget about the countless pressures we were all under as teens, when in fact we're at our most vulnerable stage of life. There's peer pressure, the pressure put on us to look a certain way, have a certain body, academic pressures, parental pressures, the pressure to get into a good college, the pressure to improve grades at school, the pressure to be a perfect social creature, the pressure to make friends, start dating, the pressure to know what you want to do as an adult, and mostly, we're completely unequipped to do these things at the ages we're expected to do them in. Don't add veganism into this mix. See it as a simple shift you've made, that is separate from everyone else. True friends will stick by you no matter what you put on your plate, and veganism can actually be a great way to practice being confident and sticking to your guns. It's also a great way to practice flexibility and avoid trying to be perfect, getting back on the bike no matter how many times you fall off. There's no such thing as "the perfect vegan". Make vegan simple, when it comes to practical matters, it's really as simple as swapping a traditional burger for the veggie kind, the more you see it that way, the more others will get it and respect it as well.
Dealing with school events
Sometimes there will be parties, social events, holiday gatherings, school events etc., where food is served. More and more vegan options are appearing in parties and events these days, so be on the lookout for those, but mostly, try to do the best you can without striving for perfect. It's ok if you ate something that wasn't vegan, nobody's perfect and what matters is moving forward in spite of the steps back. Have a snack before you go places where you're not sure if there will be vegan food for you, and you can always offer to bring something too! Who doesn't love a person who arrives with guacamole and chips in tow?!
Self-esteem and becoming a confidence ninja
Arghh self esteem and confidence! The two reasons why our teenage years are so hard. I was such a shy teenager that anything in which I had to be myself caused so much turmoil and confusion. I wish I had known then what I know now, that the only way to improve confidence is by figuratively jumping in the deep end of the pool.
You might see being vegan as a handicap that is going to make you stand out, but in fact it can be your biggest ally in finally feeling confident in your own skin. This can change your whole life as a teen! I think it comes from the fact that when you have to shout "I'm different" from the rooftops, you're deep in that pool, forced to swim, and you just do it. I think veganism is also especially helpful because we feel so much better when we know our actions are making such an impact in the world around us. Now you're not only an advocate for yourself, but also for the animals, the environment and even human rights. Pretty cool right? Go on this adventure with an open mind thinking that veganism might just be a blessing in disguise, that little key that was missing to help you "embrace your weirdness" as I like to say. It certainly helped me embrace mine.
Remembering that vegan just means vegan
Boy would I love to go to your house, scan youtube with you and delete some channels so you could never watch them! There are countless, irresponsible and even dangerous advocates out there, hanging out precisely where you're hanging out: social media. What they mostly have in common is this: vegan is no longer a simple way of eating that involves less cruelty but tons of fun, good food you love, and simplicity. Now it also means gluten free, oil free, sugar free, eating 50 bananas before 4pm, eating clean, never touching a food that is processed, and worse yet, a weight loss tool or a way to get a body that is unrealistic and unhealthy. Please remember throughout this process that vegan simply means vegan. That striving for food perfection will only lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, food obsessions and worries, and sometimes even eating disorders. Release the need to reach levels of perfection that are unhealthy by adding additional restrictions on top of the already inherent restriction present in a vegan diet. In fact, it's your job as a teen to LOVE the food you're eating and have fun with it, then set it aside to go and live your life.
Let's repeat my little mantra: "eating vegan simply means substituting a meat or dairy based ingredient for a vegan one, in order to make all the meals and dishes we used to love, in a way that helps our health, our environment, saves animals, and makes us feel happy and normal. It's not about perfection."
When perfectionism and body image issues set up house
My teenage years were where all of my body image issues set up house. That would have been un-fun enough but to top things off I started dieting, which added to an already unhealthy relationship with food and my body.
I'm so sad and feel I have to apologize to your generation for giving you a world that is so body image centered. It has gotten to such an unhealthy point that the messages are everywhere and there's simply no escaping them now. This makes being confident and loving the body you're in no matter what size you are, very difficult. If you've heard our podcast or read this blog before, you know I'm on a mission to change that. I feel it's my responsibility to you. While our voices get louder (good news is it's not just me who's behind this awesome, empowering, body positive movement), you have to be your own body image advocate.
- You can start by watching these two movies:
- Then continue on by giving your instagram, Facebook, snapchat, twitter feeds and pinterest boards a spring cleaning. Unfollow any account that makes you feel bad about your body, that make you feel you're not pretty enough, tall enough, thin enough, curvy enough, athletic enough, or that you're not doing enough.
- Check out our Bikini Revolution Series for even more motivation and new advocates to follow on social media:
- Bikini Revolution Part 1: The stories we tell ourselves and how to change them
- Bikini Revolution Part 2: The pressure to be thin
- Bikini Revolution Part 3: Change what you see - Amazing body image advocates
Eating disorders and veganism
Although in some cases veganism has been a way for sufferers of eating disorders to open a door towards recovery, I have a very strong opinion on this topic. Whenever the topic of restricting or eliminating certain foods comes up, we inevitably have to deal with the topic of eating disorders. Did you know that eating disorders are the number one killer out of all mental illnesses? Yup! Eating disorders are serious, they're life threatening and can cause irreparable damage to your mental and physical health, but the great news is recovery is not only possible, but it's right at your fingertips at this very moment. There is hope and there is help. If you've decided to go vegan and are using it as an excuse to the outside world as to why you're not eating at certain events or even at home, or you went vegan, were totally fine with it at first and suddenly fell into very restrictive patterns with food, are manipulating your food intake to achieve a certain body size, or have resorted to binge eating, purging, over exercising or any behavior associated with food that is a cause for concern, please seek help.
You're wonderful, beautiful, a unique and important person in this world no matter how much you might feel otherwise. The world needs you! You deserve a happy life in which you respect your body and in which food goes back to its normal healthy place, and yes, anyone can achieve that, no matter how far down the rabbit hole you think you are.
If you're currently suffering from an eating disorder, or suspect you might be having some unhealthy behaviors with food, push the pause button on being vegan and find recovery and support first. When we struggle with food and especially with restricting food, any small restriction can be too much to handle. I promise you veganism and its wonderful ethical benefits and consequences for this world will be waiting for you when you're at the other side, and for some long term sufferers of eating disorders, veganism might not be for you. Get to know your limits and boundaries, and learn many other ways in which you can support and advocate for animals and our planet (there are so many ways!), and leave the dietary side of things to the many others who are making the change right now. That is totally ok and it doesn't make you a bad person, it makes you a smart person who knows and understands your own limits and respects your body and the difficult turmoil it has been through. Veganism is kindness to others, and that should always start with yourself.
Find help and support today, I promise recovery is possible, and that you are worth it:
Find your tribe
No teenager (or adult for that matter) is an island! Find friends that support you on this journey even if they themselves aren't vegan, remember that you were once a meat eater too and that everyone has to go through their own process. If finding friends who support you is just not something that's happening in person, find community in your favorite blogs or Facebook groups that are dedicated to teens. Make sure to be safe when joining any group, even an online one, talk about it with your parent or guardian, take anything that is said there with a critical mind and look into it before you take it in as gospel, report any abuse, bullying or inappropriate behavior to the platform the group is on, or tell your parents or a teacher. As long as you follow the basic safety measures you would in any online scene, finding some peeps to talk to and share this journey with can really help.
Some groups and accounts that might be cool (always with permission from your parent or guardian):
- Vegan Teenagers private facebook group (just ask to join and you'll be invited in!)
- Vegan Teens Sanctuary private facebook group (just ask to join and you'll be invited in!)
- Follow @TeenVGN on twitter
- Follow Teen VGN on facebook
- Follow Vegan Outreach on facebook
I hope these tips and thoughts have offered some help on your journey! It's normal to stumble, make mistakes and even to go back and forth a bit. You can always start again tomorrow, and always with respect to your own body, mental sanity and making sure you're getting everything you need to be a healthy and happy teenage vegan.