Here’s what you need to know if you have a teen who wants to become a vegetarian.
It’s not uncommon for teens to be curious about the vegetarian diet. About 4% of children and teens are vegetarian (3%), or vegan (1%), according to the Vegan Resource Group.
This doesn’t account for teens going vegan and deciding it’s not for them.
I don’t have a teen vegetarian, yet. However, I have had each one of my girls consider it, and try it.
I don’t consider it unusual for teens to try this diet and lifestyle—it’s within the norm of the developmental stage where teens want to experiment, see quick results, and define themselves.
However, to be successful with, and healthy on, a vegetarian diet, there are a few things you should know.
First and foremost, the teen vegetarian can be a very healthy person!
Numerous studies show that a vegetarian diet reduces the incidence of chronic disease and promotes a healthy weight.
If the idea of a teen vegetarian triggers visions of protein deficiency or anemia in your head, you can squelch those worries by paying attention to a few details in their vegetarian meals.
And, teenage vegetarians can be unhealthy eaters too, so don’t be fooled into thinking that “vegetarian” equals healthy.
Different Types of Vegetarianism
It can be confusing to hear your teen wants to go vegan, or become a vegetarian. What do these terms mean?
There is a difference between a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet.
A vegan diet eliminates all animal food sources and the products made from them. So, all meat, fish, and poultry are avoided, as well as eggs, milk and other products made from, or with, animals.
A vegetarian diet is more flexible because the degree of animal foods eliminated from the diet can vary.
For example, your teen could eat fish but no other animal foods (pescetarian), milk and eggs without other animal foods (lacto-ovo vegetarian), or just eggs, or just milk and milk products and no other animal products (ovo-vegetarian, or lacto-vegetarian, respectively).
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Common Mistakes Teens Make When Going Meat-Free
Becoming a vegetarian may come with some bumps along the road. I see teenagers making mistakes like not replacing animal sources of protein with plant sources such as beans or tofu.
Or, they miss out on important nutrients like iron, calcium or vitamin B12.
Additionally, some vegetarians eat a heavily processed diet.
Teens may not understand what their body needs nutritionally, which can be a problem since they are still in a rapid phase of growth.
Parents can also make the mistake of being hands-off when their teen decides to go vegetarian or vegan.
They may not know about the nutrition adjustments that need to be made, or how to execute that within the context of the rest of the family.
Plant-Based Meals for the Whole Family
For families with a teen who wants to be a vegetarian, meal planning isn’t that different.
Offering a vegetarian protein source at meals is the biggest change, and that is relatively easy to do.
Tofu and other soy products, beans and quinoa are good options for protein. Most sides like veggies, fruits, and whole grains will be okay for all family members to eat provided they are free from animal sources (like butter).
Get your teen to help with meal preparation and you’ll both benefit! And getting teens to cook will increase knowledge and independence in this area.
A little bit of nutrition know-how and practical tips for executing meals that accommodate both vegetarian and non-vegetarian family members can go a long way to keeping the whole family nourished.
Pay Attention to Nutrients
There are key nutrients with the growing teen who is “going vegan” to keep an eye on:
Plant sources of protein are the name of the game and should be included at each meal. Good options are beans and bean products like hummus; nuts and nut butters; seeds and seed butters; high protein grains such as quinoa, amaranth, oats and bulgur; soy milk; tofu; and soy-based yogurt.
No need to worry about combining proteins, just make sure your teen eats a wide variety of these foods throughout each day.
Whole grains like whole wheat bread, whole grain crackers and bran-based cereals will increase fiber consumption and automatically add more nutrients, particularly folate, iron and B vitamins.
All types of fruit and veggies, and non-dairy substitutes like nut milks and coconut yogurt, add healthy versions of carbohydrate too. Steer clear of too many processed carbs like chips, sweets and sugary drinks.
Find a good vitamin B12 food source like fortified soy milk or a supplement, such as nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 requirements are low, but essential, so your teen will want to eat a source of vitamin B12 everyday.
This is an “at-risk” nutrient for any teen, even those who eat animal products like beef. Iron can be found in beans, tofu, green leafy vegetables and cereal.
Because plant sources of iron are harder for the body to absorb and use, pair vitamin C sources like OJ or berries with iron foods to make absorption easier.
Calcium and vitamin D
Look for fortified foods with calcium and vitamin D, such as orange juice, cereals, and alternative milks. Teens are still in peak bone building mode and these two nutrients are essential to the process.
Do you have a teen vegetarian or vegan? How’s it going?