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Help! My teenager just announced she and her boyfriend are now "vegetarians." I'm worried that they won't get the nutrients they need to stay healthy.
Teenagers are the fastest growing group of vegetarians for several reasons: 1. they may be concerned about animal welfare and the environment; 2. they want to have more control over their lives; or, 3. they believe that a vegetarian diet is a good way to lose weight.
The truth is, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a nutritious and delicious alternative to more traditional Western fare. With a little planning, it can provide all the nutrients necessary for normal growth and development. Plus, plant-based diets offer protection against heart disease, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer, and obesity. However, it's important that teenagers understand that a healthy vegetarian diet is not a fast food meal minus the burger. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is variety.
Vegetarians, by definition, eat no meat, poultry or fish. Some will include eggs and milk; they are called “lacto-ovo vegetarians.” Those who don't eat any dairy and egg products are called “vegans.” The more food groups that are eliminated, the more difficult it is to get critical nutrients. Take calcium for example. Teens need over 1000 milligrams per day to lay down strong, dense bones. Dairy products are the best source of calcium, especially milk because it is fortified with vitamin D which helps bone development. Teens that refuse to consume dairy products have to find alternative sources, such as calcium-fortified juices, tofu processed with calcium sulfate, or a vitamin supplement.
Vitamin B12 is another nutrient of concern because it is only found in animal products. Vegans may fall short of this nutrient because they exclude all animal products. Help your teen read food labels carefully; some cereals, nutritional yeast, and fortified soy milks have vitamin B12, or take a vitamin supplement.
Meat is a rich source of iron, so vegetarian teens are wise to choose iron-fortified breads and cereals. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, such as orange juice and tomatoes along with your meal will help increase iron absorption. Blackstrap molasses, dried beans and raisins are good sources of iron.
Many parents voice concern about protein, but a mixture of plant proteins eaten throughout the day will provide plenty of protein to support healthy growth. High-protein alternatives to meat include: milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, dried beans, peas or legumes, nuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, tofu, soy milk, and soy-based meat substitutes.
Keep an open mind. Ask your teen why they have chosen to make a change in their eating habits. If the reason is solely for weight loss, then help your child understand that weight control is all a matter of energy balance. No matter what the diet, excess calories consumed vs. those expended will result in weight gain. Help your vegetarian teen meet their nutritional needs without making a fuss. Focus on variety and quality, and your teen will get all the nutrients needed to stay well.
For more information on vegetarian diets, check out the American Dietetic Association website at http://www.eatright.org. For your bookshelf, check out “Becoming Vegetarian: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Vegetarian Diet,” by Vesanto Melina, Brenda Davis, and Victoria Harrison.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., Former Nutritional Sciences Specialist, University of Missouri-Columbia