DR ASHA PEMBERTON
Over the last few years and more so recently, the increased public awareness of the health and environmental benefits of consuming a plant-based diet have led to increased numbers of people self-identifying as vegan. Traditionally, the question of whether vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for children has been an international controversy. The more restrictive the diet and the younger the child, the greater the risk of nutritional deficiency. Nevertheless, in Trinidad and Tobago, we have successfully raised generations of healthy children and adolescents on meat-reduced or vegetarian diets. While planning is required to ensure nutrient balance, more plant-based or low meat options can have advantages.
Eating a plant-based diet can be a beneficial choice for your family. It does not necessarily mean you stop eating all meat or dairy products, but rather means that a majority of your food comes from plant-based sources such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, beans, and grains. Choosing a plant-based diet, has been shown to have health benefits, even in adolescents including reducing obesity, controlling states of poor glucose control and better menstrual control in teen girls. While meat sources in their purest forms are not necessarily harmful, we do recognise the impact of commercial meal processing which includes animal feed choices and antibiotics which affect the quality of the meats we eat and potential long term effects on health. A primary plant base removes the impact of these chemicals used in meat production and their impact on the developing teen body. Completely plant-based diets can provide the range of proteins, mineral and vitamins to sustain growth, but balance and variety in good options are critical.
Switching to a more plant-based diet not only may have health benefits, but can be good for the environment as well. Meat and dairy production require more water and land, and this contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. As residents on a tropical island, we must be ever mindful of the effect of climate change on our physical environment and the impact of that on our future generations.
Critics of the plant-based diet frequently quote potential nutrient deficiencies which may be harmful. Nutrients of potential concern are protein quantity and quality, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, riboflavin, vitamins A, D, B12 and essential fatty acids. Although intakes and status of some nutrients such as vitamin D and iron are low in many children, vegan children (those who eat absolutely no animal derived products, dairy or eggs) are particularly susceptible due to inadequate supply and/or excess dietary fibre as well as other components that limit their ability to be absorbed. A review of international literature, although sometimes in disagreement, is that a purely plant-based diet can be a good option for young people, but planning and structure is essential to ensure that a range of nutrients are consumed. Eating the same vegetarian meals most days may be convenient but are unlikely to provide the balance needed. Considering the many physical, mental health and environmental benefits, reducing our meat consumption is a good idea. Economically, also, plant-based diets are far less expensive than those that focus on animal products.
Basic guidance on following a plant-based diet:
Make at least half of your plate vegetables at lunch and dinner, choosing vegetables that are a variety of colours and can be combination of fresh vegetables in salads or steamed or sautéed dishes. As a rule, also aim to eat green leafy vegetables at least once per day including lettuce, kale or patchoi.
If young people choose to transition, eat smaller amounts of meat or eliminate meat altogether from one to two meals per week. Fish and seafood are fantastic options and indeed many who transition to a meat-free lifestyle successfully continue eating fish, dairy and eggs. These are all options and the focus for teen health should be on a whole food clean base and not obsess on labels or titles. Purely plant-based protein options that can create a filling meal include beans, tofu, lentils, and nuts. Online resources are simply filled with plant-based recipes and step-by-step cooking videos. Considering our continuing period of stay-at-home orders now is an excellent opportunity to explore creative plant-based cooking.
Choose healthy fats, which can be found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and olive oils. Make fruit the nightly dessert. It is critical to remember that simply removing meat does not ensure a healthy and balanced diet. Supermarkets are filled with non-nutritious meat-free items including snacks, sugared baked goods and highly-processed meat alternatives. A diet that focuses on snacks, sugars and artificial foods will simply not be ideal, even if meat-free. Considering the physical health and financial impacts of the pandemic, this is a good opportunity to explore how reducing meat intake can reap rewards on body, mind, spirit and financial future.