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So, Your Teen Wants To Be a Vegetarian

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Updated June 14, 2009

Your teen comes home from school and says she is no longer eating meat. And she isn't eating milk or eggs. Don't panic! A vegan or vegetarian teen can be a healthy teen, but you need to know a few basic facts. Learning about a vegetarianism can enable you to help your teen have a balanced and nutritious diet.

So your teen wants to become a vegan or vegetarian?

First, you need to know your teen's motivations for becoming a vegetarian teen. There are many reasons why someone would choose a meat-free, egg-free or dairy-free diet.

  • Animal rights – From the way animals are treated in factory farms to just objecting to the killing of an animal for food, being an animal rights supporter sometimes leads to adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.

  • Environment – The production of food from animal sources takes more energy and land mass than producing animal-based foods. Choosing a vegetarian diet can be seen as a step towards reducing global warming.

  • Health – Many animal sources of food are also sources of saturated fat and cholesterol. Eliminating those foods can be a move towards a more heart-healthy diet.

  • Religious restrictions – Various religions suggest not eating various foods, including animal products.

  • Taste – Some teens just don't care for the taste of meat, poultry, fish, cheese or eggs.

  • Lactose intolerance – Drinking milk or eating dairy products is something that many people living in the United States take for granted. In many countries, though, diary products are not well tolerated. African Americans, certain Asian groups, and other ethnic and racial groups are often deficient in the enzyme that is needed to digest milk.

What is she calling herself?

Depending upon your teen's motivation, he may eat no animal products, or may eat eggs or milk. Each choice has a different name.

  • Vegan – Eats no animal products. This diet excludes meat, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs and sometimes honey.

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – This diet typically excludes meat, poultry and seafood but includes milk and eggs.

  • Lacto-vegetarian – This diet excludes meat, poultry, seafood and eggs but includes milk.

  • Ovo-vegetarian – This diet excludes meat, poultry, seafood and milk but includes eggs.

When someone calls himself a vegetarian, it can mean any of the above classifications. Some people will call themselves a vegetarian while including fish or even poultry to their diet. If fish or poultry is included, many “true” vegetarians might object to the use of the title vegetarian. The use of the term has been flexible, but being a vegetarian usually means, at a minimum, that the person doesn't eat meat, poultry or seafood.

Is a vegetarian diet safe for my teen?

In a word -– yes. But teens are notorious for having poor diets in general, so it is good to be interested in your teen's diet, no matter if she is a vegetarian or not. Our culture is not vegan or vegetarian friendly, so adopting this lifestyle takes work. These are the five things that your teen could be missing in a vegetarian diet. Knowing what they are will help you and your teen be able to plan healthy vegetarian or vegan meals and snacks.

Protein. Most people ask about protein intake, and about getting “complete” proteins in a vegetarian diet. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Many plant sources of amino acids do not provide all of the amino acids that are needed to make up a complete protein. The way to get complete proteins is by having a varied diet throughout the day with protein-containing foods. Good sources of protein for vegetarians are beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, commercially-available meat substitutes (some contain milk or eggs so look at the labels), whole grain foods and vegetables. Milk products and eggs are also sources of protein, but it will depend upon your teen whether or not he will eat them.

Iron. Some of the richest sources of iron are animal-based, so vegetarians can have issues with getting enough iron in their diets. Dried beans, green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified foods like cereal and bread, tofu and even broccoli are good non-animal sources of iron.

Vitamin B12. This important vitamin has only one non-animal source -– nutritional yeast. You can also find vitamin B12 in vitamin-fortified soy milk or vitamin-fortified cereals.

Calcium. If your teen chooses to drink milk or eat milk products, calcium isn't as much of an issue, although teen girls tend to not get enough of this mineral regardless of diet. Good sources of calcium for vegetarians are soy milk and other soy products, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, calcium-fortified cereals or breads and even calcium-fortified orange juice.

Zinc. Rarely talked about, this important mineral is needed for many processes in the body and is essential for the functioning of our immune system. Zinc is readily available in shellfish, but if your teen doesn't eat that, there are other sources. Nuts, seeds, beans and zinc-fortified foods are all excellent sources of zinc for a vegetarian or vegan.

What about a multivitamin?

Teens often make poor dietary choices. A well-balanced vitamin can help make up for the things that your teen isn't eating. If your teen is going vegetarian or vegan, a vitamin might be even more important to your child's health.

Most commercially-available vitamins use animal sources for some of their nutrients. Your teen may want to choose a multivitamin that is suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Ask someone at your local healthcare store about vegetarian multivitamins, or look online for these specialized supplements.

A vegetarian diet can be healthy and even better than the average diet of an American teen. With a little knowledge, and a few new recipes, your teen can be on his way to a new and healthful way of life.

Sources:

Iron in the Vegan Diet. The Vegetarian Resource Group. February 22, 2009. http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.htm

Vegetarian Diets. American Heart Association. February 22, 2009. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4777

Vegetarian Diets. United States Department of Agriculture. February 23, 2009. http://www.mypyramid.gov/tips_resources/vegetarian_diets.html

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