Helping teens who go veggie.
By Susan C. Davis
Regardless of whether you raised your teenager vegetarian or vegan or whether he or she has just recently expressed an interest in that lifestyle, it’s important for you, as a parent, to know how to provide proper nutrition for your growing children. “A lot of teens want to go vegetarian for the right reasons, but they lack the necessary information,” says Nava Atlas, author of several books on vegetarian cooking. “My husband and I raised our two sons vegetarian from birth. Since we had a varied diet and the boys were always pretty good about eating at least a few modest servings of fruits and vegetables a day, I really didn’t have too many nutritional concerns.”
Vegetarians, Vegans, and Vitamins
Amanda Leonard, a pediatric nutrition practitioner at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, agrees that vegetarian diets that are well-planned can be healthy and nutritionally adequate for children as well as adults.
In fact, Leonard says, studies have shown that vegetarians have lower morbidity rates and mortality rates from diseases such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, and lung and colorectal cancer. They also tend to be closer to a healthy body weight.
While Leonard notes that vegetarian diets are common among adolescents who have eating disorders, she’s quick to add that, just because a teen follows a vegetarian diet, does not mean that teen has an eating disorder. Parents should be aware of this association, Leonard says, and pay close attention to the adolescent who is greatly limiting food choices and exhibiting other symptoms of eating disorders.
According to Leonard, lacto-vegetarians (vegetarians who consume dairy products but no meat or eggs) and lacto-ovo-vegetarians (vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs, but no meat) generally don’t have to worry about nutritional deficiencies, since the milk products and/or eggs in their diet ensure that they are getting calcium for bones and teeth, vitamin D for mineral absorption, and vitamin B12 for functions of the brain and nervous system.
Vegan diets, however, contain only plant foods that are bulkier and lower in fat.
One concern for growing teens who are vegan is that they may not be taking in enough calories, so frequent meals and snacks may be necessary.
Another concern is that, without eating meat, milk, and eggs, vegans are at a higher risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency. Leonard recommends that vegan children consume a reliable source of B12 and vitamin D through fortified vegetable products, or take supplements. Atlas agrees that vegans should take a B12 supplement.
Teens, especially girls, need plenty of iron, which is essential for the body’s growth and maintenance. Iron-rich foods for vegans include spinach, tofu, certain beans, seeds, and dried fruits, among other plant-based foods.
Teenagers also need a good supply of protein, which carries oxygen in the blood. While vegetarians can get protein from dairy and eggs, Atlas suggests that vegans turn to beans and legumes, including lentils, nuts, nut butters, and seeds, soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and faux meats, and alternative milks, such as rice and almond milk for their protein.
She advises going easy on the faux meats, which are made of soy protein isolate, a highly refined or purified form of soy protein. Ingesting too much soy in general has been linked to thyroid function suppression, among other health complications.
Atlas also points out that even whole grains—especially quinoa, but also brown rice, couscous, barley, and many vegetables—have at least some protein in them.
Learning to Love Veggies
Because “a lot of teens want to go vegetarian, but don’t particularly like vegetables,” Atlas observes, she advises that parents introduce young children to a variety of vegetables to help them develop a taste for them, and to “keep experimenting with different veggies, and prepare them in simple and tasty ways.”
For instance, she suggests that parents make a healthier version of pizza with lots of vegetables instead of lots of cheese and consider meals like Asian-style stir-fries that are quick and easy to make with broccoli and other vegetables, tofu or seitan, and a good, bottled teriyaki sauce.
If Mexican cuisine is a family favorite, Atlas suggests using beans instead of beef.
“Get kids involved in shopping for, cooking, and, best of all, growing vegetables,” she says. “Cook and serve healthy foods with a joyous attitude and make it fun. Meals don’t have to be complicated or a chore to be fantastic.
“If a parent engages the entire family in the rituals around preparing and serving food, it’s a valuable lesson for living.” BC
The American Dietetic Association (ADA), www.eatright.org.
The New Becoming Vegetarian, by Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis (Healthy Living Publications, 2nd ed., 2003). This is the companion to their book Becoming Vegan (Book Publishing Co., 2000).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines, www.mypyramid.gov/guidelines/index.html.
Article by the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group of the ADA about vegetarian diets for kids at www.vegetariannutrition.net/articles/Vegan-Diets-For-Children.php.
The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (Broadway Books, 2004). Atlas also has the website In a Vegetarian Kitchen with Nava Atlas, www.vegkitchen.com, which has a “Vegetarian and Vegan Kids and Teens” section with lots of recipes and nutritional tips.
The nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group has a teen nutrition page on its website, www.vrg.org/nutshell/teen_veg.pdf.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. December 2009