October 03, 2016 by
The VRG Blog Editor
By Alicia Hückmann, intern visiting from Germany
Growing up in a tiny, rural German village as the descendant of sausage-lovers, I was destined to get in trouble when I decided to become a vegan. To be fair, I was already 18 years old and moving into my own flat at that time, so I probably had different opportunities of dealing with the issue than younger teenagers might have. The arguments I regularly got into, the accusations I had to face, and the mistakes I made, however, were probably very similar to those of any other underage vegan. For this reason, I made a list of the three main reasons my parents did not approve of my diet and what I did (or could have done in retrospective) to prove them wrong.
What they said: “Veganism is bad for your health. Your diet is not balanced at all.”
What I heard: “We don’t care if you did hours of research on nutrients because parents always know better and that’s a fact.”
What they probably meant to say: “We worry about you and we want you to be healthy. Some sources say that veganism is not good for teenagers and even though we don’t know for sure whether they are wrong, we would rather you listen to them than take an unnecessary risk.”
Whenever I talk to non-vegans about my experiences following a plant-based diet, health concerns are among the first things they respond with. Not very surprising considering how schools and dietitians constantly tell us that we need cow’s milk for our bones, that meat is full of iron and protein, and so forth. We are raised to believe that animal products are an indispensable part of a balanced diet. And although vegans statistically have a lower risk of developing typical diseases of civilization like diabetes, their diet is more commonly associated with malnutrition and deficiencies by the general public – and probably also by your parents. What many people don’t realize, however, is the fact that most vegans are just as aware of these requirements as they are. After all, switching to a healthy vegan diet often includes research that includes knowledge of nutrients and potential sources for them. For this reason, many vegans are actually much better informed about food than the average meat-eater!
So when talking to your parents about their health concerns, you want to make clear that you did enough research to make a responsible decision. If you haven’t already, check out The Vegetarian Resource Group’s general vegan nutrition guide (http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/vegan.htm), our brochure for vegan teenagers (http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/VeganNutritionForTeenagers.pdf) or other nutrition related articles (http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/) for scientific facts. Being able to list a few good sources for protein, iron, and calcium as well as to explain how to handle Vitamin D and B12 can be a good way of proving to your parents that you know what you’re doing. Also, put together an exemplary combination of fruits, vegetables, and grains or even a full menu that can provide you with enough nutrients to meet the recommended daily amount of all important nutrients.
If this doesn’t already convince your parents, you can offer to have your blood levels checked on a regular basis (which is something both vegans and non-vegans could be doing anyway). I had my first blood sample taken after about half a year of being a vegan – the results didn’t only take away much of my parents’ skepticism but also reassured me that my planning had worked out perfectly well. Most people when switching diets would not go to this extent though.
What they said: “Vegan food is exorbitant; we don’t have enough money for that. Besides, do you expect me to cook for the family AND give you special treatment?”
What I heard: “We have no clue what veganism is all about but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to your explanations and suggestions when we can just give you a rant about it.”
What they probably meant to say: “The decisions you make often affect the entire family, not just yourself. We have enough things to worry about. If you ask for special treatment, it makes us feel like you don’t appreciate that we are already doing so much for you.
Due to the fact that I was already living on my own when I became a vegan, cooking is a rather minor issue for me and my family. The only times it becomes a bit problematic is during weekends and holidays when I come home. As my family’s kitchen is not exactly vegan-friendly – bread, apples, and tomatoes are among the few things that don’t contain any animal products – I often have to rely on them taking me to the closest grocery store in a nearby town.
So this is the first tip I have for you: Go shopping together with your family. Don’t just give them a list of the things you need. When it comes to processed vegan food especially, it can get pretty confusing for non-vegans – and you don’t want their first vegan shopping experiences to be frustrating. If they insist that veganism is expensive, prove them wrong. Instead of wasting your money on meat and dairy alternatives that you don’t necessarily need, try to focus on simple, healthy and cheap food like dry lentils (iron!) and beans (protein!) as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. You and your family will be surprised how much money can actually be saved by cutting down on animal products.
Once you’ve managed to sneak your vegan food into your family’s kitchen, you’ll have to find a solution for family dinners. While cooking for three or more people is already a lot of work, it gets worse if one of them demands a different meal. Then again, do you really need special treatment? Many (side) dishes can be enjoyed by both meat-eaters and vegans as they are – like stir-fried vegetables or soups – and sometimes there is only one or two ingredients that need to be replaced in order for the dish to be vegan. If your parents decide to make a salad for example, ask them to put some of it in a separate bowl before adding any non-vegan ingredients or dressing. Make a list of meals and sides that are vegan “by accident” (like spaghetti with tomato sauce) and that are enjoyed by everyone in the family. In case your parents are not very compromising (or not keen on eating vegetables in general), you’ll probably have to cook for yourself. With hundreds of thousands of quick and easy vegan recipes out there, this should not really be a problem though. Once you move out and have to rely on your own, you will probably be very thankful for this experience, by the way!
One final tip for this section: Never try to shame or convert anyone at the dinner table (or anywhere, ever). The best thing you can do in order to get people interested in and more accepting of your diet is setting a good example. If anyone makes comments about your food (how they could never live without xy, how plants are not filling at all, etc.), surprise your family with a vegan version of their favorite dish, a cake, muffins, or even a full vegan menu.
What they said: “Vegan? That’s just another silly phase. Why can’t you just be a normal person like everyone else?
What I heard: “We have no intentions of taking you or your life choices seriously, no matter how grown up you think you are.”
What they probably meant to say: “We are not ready to accept that you are growing up so quickly and making life choices that are so different from ours. It gives us the impression that you are estranging yourself from us, maybe even willingly.
Looking back I know that many of the fights my family and I had about veganism were not about veganism at all. Did you notice that you could replace “vegan” with basically anything in the example above, be it an unusual hobby, a career path you’re interested in, or even the wish to get tattooed? During our teenage years, we struggle to find out who we are and what we want to do with our lives. And as if this wasn’t enough of a burden already, we also have to deal with the fact that our parents are not always happy with the results.
I like to think about my decision to go vegan as the tip of an iceberg. Just like the bit of ice that is visible above the surface, my diet was not actually a big issue in itself after a while, yet something of whose existence my family was reminded of each time we had a meal together. The many arguments we had as a result were not solely centered about veganism but always gradually drifted towards underlying and more deeply rooted issues like the fact that I was living away from home and that they hated my significant other. In the end, it all came back to their fear to lose touch with as well as control over me and to be unable to protect me from making (what they considered) bad decisions. At some point I realized that veganism really only served as a trigger or an excuse to start a fight about the topics they actually cared about.
So if your parents react unreasonably sensitive or aggressive to your new diet, try to look at the bigger picture. Are there any other issues that bother your parents at the moment? Do they have the impression that you are distancing themselves from them?
If yes, I am afraid this is an issue that cannot be solved as easily as the two before. The only tips I can give you for this one: Firstly, don’t join the argument. If you can already guess where it is going to end, make clear that you are not going to have the same discussion again unless they have any new questions that you haven’t answered yet. And secondly, let your parents know that no matter what you do, you will always love and appreciate them. On first sight, going vegan could be (wrongly) interpreted as estranging yourself from your meat-eating family – but doesn’t your choice rather prove that your parents succeeded in teaching you empathy, commitment, and critical thinking?
One final remark: While some parents are very supportive of their vegan children from the very beginning, others will need a little persuading in the beginning. And then there are parents like mine who will slowly start to tolerate their children’s diet choices after a year or longer. I have been a vegan for more than 1½ years now and finally reached a point where my family does not make comments about the food on my plate and mostly leaves me alone during meals. On the other hand, my sister has become a big fan of my cooking skills and always asks me to make a cake when she has a party. In the end, the most effective ways to convince someone that veganism isn’t that bad after all are patience, persistence, and kindness!