Transitioning Teens to a Vegan Diet

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Today's post and podcast episode is all about teens! There is so much to say when it comes to teenagers and a vegan diet or food habits in general. On the one hand, and I find that this is the most typical, teenagers sometimes make the choice on their own to go vegan and come home to surprise meat-eating mom and dad with the news. A very different scenario happens when a whole family, including its teens, gets inspired and decides to go plant-based together. Another situation occurs when it's the parents who have decided to make this transition into a vegan diet and the teenager of the house is resistant to the change. All of these are important things to talk about, and we will, but just to get it organized, I've decided to do this in parts since these are very different from each other. We can informally call this "the vegan teens series"!

In today's instalment of the vegan teens series, we'll be talking about the third scenario: What happens when you, as a parent or guardian decide to make this change, and are wondering what this will mean for the teenagers in your life, who may or may not be resistant to it. We'll get to the other two scenarios really soon since there is so much to be said there as well.

All of the tips I'll be sharing today can apply not only to making the switch to a vegan diet, but to any healthy habit you're trying your teens to start putting into place when it comes to food, and I think you'll be surprised on the angle I take on many of these. It's not about convincing, trying to preach or covert them, it's about sharing what might be important to you, and hoping that it inspires them to make whatever changes they are comfortable with. It's also about that very tough mission of teaching a sense of balance and infusing a dose of "normal" to the act of eating. Something that can be very hard in today's day and age in which the focus on health has taken food habits to very unhealthy territory. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to this, which is why I decided to start this series with this particular issue, when the change is being brought on by the parent and not the other way around.

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Having worked with teenagers for many years, I can tell you about many of my war stories. By war I don't mean to say that teenagers came in armed and I had to defend myself which is what many people think of when they think of teens and pre-teens. I'm simply talking about the lessons learned. In between the eye rolling and the slight apathy that are the vain of any teacher's existence, there have been so many life lessons I've received from working with teens. Here are some of the cool things about this age group people don't often think about:

  • Teens are courageous. The typical adult fear hasn't been installed in their hard-drive yet.
  • Teens are willful. They power through and insist on getting what they want.
  • Teens understand better than you think they do, even if they seem to be ignoring the world around them.
  • Teens are passionate. One of the qualities that makes teaching them such a ride.
  • Teens are dying for someone to actually listen to them. Behind the eye rolling and the never wanting to take off their headphones or look up from their phones, is a young adult wanting to be heard.
  • Teens can be magnificent advocates and activists.
  • Teens still have an innocence behind the way they see the world, even though a kid is the last thing they want to be associated with.
  • They're what I call "in between-ers". No longer kids, not yet adults but wanting to be, this is why this period is so hard for teens as well as teachers and parents.
  • Most of them believe, whole heartedly, that one person can make a difference, something that as adults we tend to forget.
  • They are also sensitive, insecure, have a deep desire to fit in and be accepted, which is why this period is crucial and essential to then becoming healthy, happy adults. It's also why the emotional scars that are created at this stage in life are so deep and profound when those teenage years turn into adulthood.

So many of these qualities play a part in the dietary habits and behaviors of teens.

I used to dread the classes where I had to teach teenagers, but now they're one of my favorites. Why? Because after years of working with them, I finally understand what makes them tick, and I started to speak their language.

When it comes to food, parenting, and wanting to introduce a healthier diet, or a more compassionate diet (whatever health or ethical motivation you had for going vegan), you've got to understand the teen, and there are certainly going to be challenges, and there are certainly going to have to be compromises. When it comes to teens you always need to remember that they are at their most vulnerable stage, things like peer pressure, the pressure to be thin or well-built, bullying, desperately wanting to fit in, self esteem issues, anxiety, depression, they're all part of the lives of teenagers, and most of all, it's our job as parents and educators to help them go through this stage without too much added pressure or control. This stage of life is in my opinion the most crucial, and it's where so much of our identity and our self esteem is formed, not to mention our future habits. This is why when it comes to changing the family's diet, it's so important to take everything into consideration, remembering that this is a stage that will pass, but that is essential for a healthy adult life, both mentally and physically.

To me, this means balance. You'll see this as a constant in the tips for transitioning teenagers to a vegan diet I´m going to share now:

1) They're their own person

As a parent, you have the total and absolute right to parent, meaning, you decide how you raise your kids, whether that includes what religion they follow (or lack thereof), the school they go to, the responsibilities you give them, and yes, the food you feed them. Addressing a change like this with teenagers though, is slightly different from doing so with young kids. Teens have more autonomy, and although you might be in charge of shopping and cooking at home, teens are their own person at this stage of the game, they should still have and of course need your guidance, but they can be stubborn, attached to the way they like to do things, and of course rebellious.

Remember throughout the process you're going through, that they might not want to follow you, they might want to do it just some of the time or they might eventually decide to jump in and join you, especially if some of their personal boundaries are kept safe. Sure, they're your babies, but by now, they can make their own decisions too and they are constantly testing your boundaries. All you can do is inspire, motivate and share what you know in the hopes that they might also get inspired. Forcing a dietary change on a teenager can do much more harm than good.

2) Share and inspire without pushing your own agenda

Almost every single teenager I've worked with is deeply passionate about something, and chances are that if you share what you've learned, especially when it comes to what is happening in our animal agriculture system, they will beat you to the punch and become an animal activist. Sometimes though, the mere presence of you being the one to recommend something is enough for them to run in the opposite direction. Rather than telling them "you have to read this", bring it up as a normal part of the conversation, talk about how it's motivating you, and how you had no idea that our food choices had such an impact in the world.

Make it about you, not about them. My mother inspired me to be a volunteer from the early age of 8, something that has continued well into my adult years, and it being exceptionally strong in my teenage years. She never told me "I had to do it", I saw her do it and talk passionately about it, and I asked her if I could try it too. She led by example, and that's what I always recommend when someone in your family isn't vegan (teen or otherwise), rather than pushing your ideals on somebody else. With teenagers especially, this almost always backfires.

3) Show them a new role-model (one that isn't you)

Yes, yes, I know. I told you to lead by example and I stand by it. This doesn't mean though, that your teen will start listening to and doing everything you say and do. Sometimes a little inspiration needs to come from elsewhere and in the form of a role-model. Teens are looking for role-models every single hour of every day, it's basically the whole reason social media is so addictive to them. Find some cool vegan folks who like what your teens like, and share it with them if they're open to it. People like Rich Roll, the ultra marathon runner, if your kid is an athlete, Alicia Silverstone if your teen likes acting, or Travis Barker if your kid is into rock and roll. This can be as simple as saying "I just found out today that Liam Hemsworth is vegan!". It's not about having someone convince them or "trick" them into the way you eat, I can't stress this highly enough, it's about sharing information and inspiration and then letting the pieces fall where they may. This applies to friends, family, teenagers or any other age group. If the motivation to create any habit change (especially a dietary one) doesn't come from the own person's desire and drive, it's not going to stick. You're just guiding the way and letting them come to their own decision.

4) Approach food naturally and with balance

We're finally at the real inspiration behind this post, the reason why I wanted to talk about teenagers and their dietary habits and changes.

Teenagers are already bombarded day in and day out with messages about food and body, often times in very restrictive, perfectionistic and profoundly unhealthy ways. Before being a vegan advocate, before concerns about the planet, animals and your or their health, you need to always strive to be the voice of reason and balance when it comes to food. Don't add to the clean eating, fit and perfect body talk they already have in their head.

Approximately 30 million people in the US alone suffer from an eating disorder, and these behaviors often times begin during teenage years. With eating disorders having the highest mortality rate out of ALL mental illnesses, we should be making this issue the subject of school curriculums, news platforms and all forms of media, instead, what our kids (and we) are getting, is constant food fear mongering, images on impossible standards of beauty and how valued these are by other members of society. Instead of having news segments talk about the presence of photo shop in every single image we see, or the fact that every 68 minutes someone dies of an eating disorder, we have newscasters talking about the 5 foods we should never eat after 6 pm. Don't add to this when it comes to your children and teens' eating. This might mean that you yourself have to take a look at your food habits, restrictive and dieting patterns, and find healing when it comes to your relationship to food. One thing I can tell you about teenagers (as well as young children) is that they listen to everything we say and they see everything we do. Our words and actions eventually can become their words and actions.

  • Make sure your relationship with food is healed and in balance before you attempt to make any change.
  • Approach food and the moment of eating with ease and joy, whether the food on the table is what you would like it to be or not fully there yet.
  • Make the moment of eating with your teens peaceful.
  • Make no comments about the amount of food your teenagers eat, or the amount of food you've just eaten. Comments like "I ate so much I'll have to hit the gym tomorrow" should go bye bye.
  • Take the time to talk to your teens, about topics that interest them and you, and that have nothing to do with food.
  • Make no comments about your body or their body. We need to start separating the topics of body image and food. 
  • Don't judge your teen if they mention that they ate something that wasn't vegan or if what they're eating in that meal isn't fully vegan.
  • Lead by example without preaching, and especially don't pull up a chair for "shame" at the table.
  • Avoid using terms like good and bad when it comes to food. Make food and eating normal. Focus on the gratitude you feel for being alive and well fed.
  • There is nothing as healing and as special as mealtime shared together as a family, make it the most pleasant, pleasure ridden, fun-loving moment everyone looks forward to. It's with these balanced and emotionally healthy moments with food that our relationship with it can start healing if it has already suffered.

Since I have my own history with an unhealthy relationship with food, which you can read more about here, these tips are the reason I began the teenager series with the post on parents trying to change the dietary habits of their teens. Having a good and balanced relationship with food is one of the most important parts of having health and experiencing both physical and mental wellness, and the way you introduce any change to your kids' diets will help add to the "possibly already there - voices in their heads", or to the "food is pleasure and sustenance and I have balance with it" way of thinking.

It could happen that your teen will join you on your quest to a vegan diet, and they might also never decide to join you or understand you. Whatever the case may be, always approach food from a place of joy, rather than punishment or a way to heal emotional turmoil or the road to an ideal body. Always find healing yourself if you feel some of these issues keep coming up for you when it comes to food.

5) Vegan only means vegan

I encounter this every single day through our work here at Brownble. Recently, veganism is no longer the swapping of one ingredient for another when making your favorite meals, it's now also gluten free, soy free, clean eating, zero processed foods, no sugar, no oils, you name it someone's coined it and started a youtube channel. If you factor in this, with the already big change of swapping animal products for pant based alternatives, you're basically eliminating half of the life of a teenager. This will turn into rejection from a rebellious teen, and even more dangerous, food obsessions and perfectionism in teens who do want to follow in your footsteps and are susceptible to these types of messages. I'll say it again, achieve a balanced relationship with food and body first, then you can think of helping your teens transition if this is something they are excited about trying with you.

6) Get educated when it comes to the nutritional requirements of teens

Teens have growing bodies, incredibly fast metabolisms, they are at the peak of their hormone production which means their bodies are changing and therefore need to make sure they're eating enough foods. Make sure to add plenty of variety in the foods you prepare, provide plenty of foods high in protein, calcium, iron, provide B12 supplementation and their daily requirements for omega 3s. My two favorite books when it comes to vegan nutrition and all of life's stages are Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina, and Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina and JL Fields. Vegan nutrition is actually quite simple and doesn't require fussing over grams or calories, but it's always helpful to take a look at some of the plant sources of these nutrients and get a sense of what a balanced plate looks like. At the end of this post we'll be providing an access button (big pink button at the end of this post) to our vegan resource library, filled with books, videos, films, vegan friendly doctor directories, nutritional guides and information and so much more, just in case you want a bit more information on any of these topics.

7) Share resources that speak their language

Don't just hand them over a copy of The China Study and expect them to instantly tweet all about it and change their ways, try to find resources that speak their language. Many blogs, youtube channels and books are designed and written with teenagers in mind, and a great resource is the brand new book The Book of Veganish by Kathy Freston, filled with quick reference guides, simple fun recipes, and written especially for teens and young adults and their concerns.

8) Cook delicious food!

Whenever you're trying to inspire your teens to make any dietary change, whether that's eating more vegetables, eating more mindfully, making the transition to veganism, or any other change when it comes to food, the food has to be delicious. A veggie burger with all the fixings as a swap for a traditional meat-based one will get you miles further than changing a pancake morning to a green smoothie bowl morning. Make it familiar, make it delicious, and let the pieces fall where they may.

9) Don't sweat the small stuff

Even the most motivated teens will fall off the wagon or lose interest at some point. If you asked me to compare what "the teenage years" are like with some kind of natural phenomenon it would definitely be the wave. It builds up and comes at you with full force and the mightiest of passions, then it dwindles down and relaxes on the shore, only to retrieve and repeat again countless times. This is normal, and rather than prevent the wave from doing what it's going to, it's your job to be a surfer and ride the waves with them. Understand that these are difficult times when it comes to their identity and finding their place in the world, both with food and otherwise. Let them make their mistakes, fall off the wagon and get back on as many times as they need to without using the words "you said that last month and look what happened", or "flake", or "here we go again". Ride the waves with as much understanding as you can, without ever losing your mission of making food normal, whether they decide to go vegan or not.

10) Get to know their "whys"

My last tip is to always listen to them and what they have to say. Listen to why they're resistant to this change, or why they're struggling with it even if they were motivated to do it. The "whys" of children and teens are far from silly and unimportant, they're the window into much deeper issues, motivations and emotions. If you listen carefully and they learn that you are there to listen without judgement, they will come to you when they really do need help, and sadly, when it comes to teenagers and eating, in this day and age, it might be quite often. 

Yes teens can be a head scratcher, they can make you thank the lord your mother didn't kick you out on your bum when you did stuff like that as a kid. They can make you lose your patience and your mind sometimes, but always remember teens were you, and they were me. Had I known back then what I know now, many moments in my life would have been different, but I would have never reached that place if someone had pushed it on me or shamed my choices. It could have also been the beginning of a balanced relationship with food that would have saved me years of suffering and body image issues because of it, which is why, when it comes to teenagers and food, rule number one is to make food normal. Rule number two is to inspire and still be there without relying on the outcome.

If you'd like to check out more resources to help you along your journey, don't forget to check out our vegan resource library by clicking the button below! We'll have another installment of the vegan teens series really soon and as usual I'll see you below in the comments section for any stories, questions or comments!

** If you're a member of our online program My Brownble, click here to access the library**