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Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Teens

September 14, 2015

Does your teen want to become a vegetarian or is he or she already one? More and more teenagers are choosing to eliminate meat, poultry, fish, or even dairy and eggs from their diet. Some reasons are due to religion, animal rights, improved health, or maintaining a healthy weight. Many teenagers feel the pressure from family and friends about their diet choice, especially if they are unsure if their nutritional needs are being met.

With proper planning, teens are able to meet their increased nutritional needs while following a vegetarian diet. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and for some, dairy products and eggs can assure proper nutrition is being met. Some nutrients of concern with vegetarians are protein, iron, vitamin B12 and calcium.

Most Common Types of Vegetarians

Lacto- ovo – Eats dairy and eggs

Lacto – Eats dairy products

Ovo– Eats eggs

Vegan – Eats no animal products of any kind

Key Nutrients to Watch

Protein

Protein is a nutrient that is made up of amino acids, which is essential for proper growth and development of muscles, bone, skin, and hair. Vegetarians usually do not have trouble meeting nutritional needs for protein if eating a wide variety of plant foods. Eating adequate amounts of beans, legumes, tofu, meat substitutes, dairy, eggs, cereals, soymilk, and nuts can help meet nutritional needs. Diets that are mainly made up of fruits and fats provide very little protein and due to this, will likely be low in protein. Encourage teenagers to eat a variety of plant protein sources with each meal and snack.

Iron

Iron is a mineral that is needed for red blood cells to help transport oxygen to all parts of the body. Low iron levels can lead to anemia, which can cause fatigue, trouble concentrating, tiredness, and shortness of breath during physical activity. Iron is found in both meat and plant sources but some are better absorbed than others. Iron in meat products (heme) is more readily absorbed than iron in plant sources (non-heme). Due to lower availability from plant sources, the recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times those of non-vegetarians. Consuming a diet high in iron-containing plant foods will help your teenager meet their iron needs.

Here’s how you can help your teen get plenty of iron:

  • Limit coffee and tea to two times per day
  • Eat plenty of vitamin C-rich foods (which enhance absorption):
Strawberries, oranges, bell peppers, kiwi, papaya, green leafy vegetables, pineapple, potatoes, and broccoli
  • Consume iron-rich foods with meals:
Enriched breads and cereals, oatmeal, dried fruit, beans, nuts, legumes, cream of wheat, and soybeans
  • Read food labels for iron and vitamin C-rich foods
Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is required for the proper development of red blood cells and the nervous system. A deficiency of this vitamin can lead to anemia and changes in the function of the nervous system. Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products like milk, cheese, and yogurt, and fortified foods such as fortified soy and rice beverages, some breakfast cereals, and meat substitutes. Vitamin B-12 intake in vegetarians is often less than adequate especially in vegans, who eliminate all animal products. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) says individuals 14 years of age and older consume about 2.4 mcg per day, which is a very small amount but still important. Vegetarians who eliminate or eat very little of these foods might want to consider a vitamin B-12 supplement.

Calcium

Adequate calcium intake is very important to assure proper bone health and growth especially since bone mass is determined during adolescence and young adulthood. Calcium intake in vegetarians who eat dairy is often adequate, but vegans tend to consume lower amounts of calcium-rich foods. Vegans can meet the requirements by consuming calcium-fortified foods or by taking supplements. Calcium can also be found in greens such as broccoli, bok choy, collards and cabbage, which are all good sources. Consuming fortified orange juice, soymilk, and tofu can also help meet nutritional needs. The recommendation for calcium intake for teens is 1300mg per day. Check the nutrition facts label to determine higher calcium options that are best for your teenager.

By adding a little variety and making yourself aware of the nutritional concerns, a vegetarian diet can be a healthful choice for your teenager.

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