The teen years are known for their mini-rebellions or a time for kids to assert their independence and make their own decisions.
For many, it might mean testing out black nail polish, breaking curfew or taking up a few new causes. For others, it may mean bidding farewell to meat. If this is your teen, there’s no need to worry.
“A vegetarian diet can be a healthy way of eating for teens,” said Lindsay Bailey, MS, RD/LD, a clinical dietitian at Akron Children’s Hospital. “It is important to include a variety of food groups in order to meet calorie needs to fuel growth. A diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and dairy alternatives, and lean proteins can ensure proper nutrition.”
In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has officially endorsed vegetarianism, stating “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
However, if meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are not going to be part of your teen’s diet, they’ll need to know how to get enough of these nutrients, or they may need to take a daily multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.
Simply dropping certain foods from their diet isn’t the way to go if they’re interested in maintaining good health, a high energy level, and strong muscles and bones. Teens going vegetarian have to be careful to include the following key nutrients that may be lacking in this type of diet:
Eggs and dairy products are good sources of protein, but also try nuts, peanut butter, tofu, beans, seeds, soy milk, grains, cereals and vegetables to get all the protein your body needs.
“Protein is essential for the growth and development of children and teens,” Lindsay said. “A child’s age and activity level can impact the amount of protein they need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food guide, called MyPlate, can help with making healthy eating choices.”
Sea vegetables like nori, wakame and dulse are very high in iron. Less exotic but still good options are iron-fortified breakfast cereals, legumes (chickpeas, lentils and baked beans), soybeans and tofu, dried fruit (raisins and figs), pumpkin seeds, broccoli and blackstrap molasses.
“To help with absorption of iron, pair iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and juices,” said Lindsay. “Do not pair foods containing iron and calcium, however, which interferes with iron absorption.”
Girls need to be particularly concerned about getting enough iron because some iron is lost during menstruation. Some girls who are vegetarians may not get enough iron from vegetable sources and may require a daily supplement. Check with your doctor about your own iron needs.
Milk and yogurt are tops if you’re eating dairy products − although vegetarians will want to look for yogurt that doesn’t contain the meat byproduct gelatin. Tofu, fortified soy milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables and dried figs are also excellent ways for vegetarians (and vegans) to get calcium.
Remember, teens are building up their bones for the rest of their life. Because women have a greater risk for osteoporosis (weak bones) as adults, it’s particularly important for girls to make sure they get enough calcium. Taking a supplement may be necessary to ensure you’re getting the proper amount.
We need vitamin D to get calcium into our bones. Your body manufactures vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Cow’s milk is top on the list for food sources of this vitamin. Vegans can try fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals.
Some teens may need a supplement that includes vitamin D, especially during the winter months. Everyone should have some exposure to the sun to help the body produce vitamin D.
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin found in animal products, including eggs and dairy. Fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast also have this important vitamin. It’s hard to get enough vitamin B12 in your diet if you are vegan, so a supplement may be necessary.
“Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal foods, making fortified foods necessary for vegetarians and vegans,” Lindsay said.
Teens who consume the recommended levels of zinc regularly may be less likely to develop neurological problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, growth delays and problems with recurrent infections. They also may have a decreased risk of heart disease, age-related macular degeneration and cancer as they grow into adulthood.
If you’re not eating dairy foods, make sure fortified cereals, dried beans, nuts and soy products like tofu and tempeh are part of your diet so you can meet the daily requirement for this important mineral.
“The absorption of zinc from plant foods is hindered by the presence of phytic acids, making the zinc less absorbable than the zinc found in animal-based foods,” said Lindsay. “Instead of raw, using a variety of cooking methods, such as fermenting or soaking beans can help reduce the phytic acids and make them more digestible to increase absorption.”
Fat, calories and fiber
In addition to vitamins and minerals, vegetarians need to keep an eye on their total intake of calories and fat. Vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber and low in fat and calories. That may be good for teens who need to lose weight or lower their cholesterol, but it can be a problem for kids who are still growing and who are already at a healthy weight.
Some vegetarians (especially vegans) may not get enough omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are good for heart health and are found in fish and eggs. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include some vegetable oils (such as soybean, canola and flaxseed), chia seeds, ground flax seeds and walnuts.
High-fiber diets tend to be more filling and as a result, strict vegetarians may feel full before they’ve eaten enough calories to keep their bodies healthy and strong. It’s a good idea to let your doctor know that you’re a vegetarian so that he can keep on eye on your growth and make sure you’re still getting adequate amounts of calories and fat.
If your teen is thinking about becoming a vegetarian, consider making an appointment to talk with a dietitian who can go over lists of foods that would give her the nutrients she needs. A dietitian can discuss ways to prevent conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia that she might be at an increased risk for if she stops eating meat. Ask your doctor or dietitian if she needs to take a daily multivitamin or other supplement.