Vegetarian Nutrition for Teenagers

by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.

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More and more teenagers are choosing not to eat meat, poultry or fish. They are becoming vegetarians. Teenage vegetarians are often faced with pressures -- pressures from parents concerned about their health, and pressures from within to continue on the path they have chosen.

Variety is the Key to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet

Probably the most frequent questions for teenage vegetarians are about the nutritional adequacy of their food choices. A vegetarian diet can be enjoyed by people of all ages. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is variety. Just as your parents should be concerned if you only eat hamburgers, they should also worry if you only eat potato chips and salad. A healthy, varied vegetarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes. Some vegetarians also choose to eat dairy products and/or eggs.

Teenage vegetarians have nutritional needs that are the same as any other teenager. The years between 13 and 19 are times of especially rapid growth and change. Nutritional needs are high during these years. The nutrients you will probably be asked about the most are protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.

What About Protein?

North American vegetarian teens eating varied diets rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to support growth. Cow's milk and lowfat cheese are protein sources; however, beans, breads, cereals, nuts, peanut butter, tofu, and soy milk are also some foods that are especially good sources of protein. Only fruits, fats, and alcohol do not provide much protein, and so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein.

It is not necessary to plan combinations of foods to obtain enough protein or amino acids (components of protein). A mixture of plant proteins eaten throughout the day will provide enough essential amino acids.

Other Important Nutrients for Vegetarian Teenagers

Especially during adolescence, calcium is used to build bones. Bone density is determined in adolescence and young adulthood; so it is important to include three or more good sources of calcium in your diet every day. Cow's milk and dairy products do contain calcium. However, there are other good sources of calcium such as tofu processed with calcium sulfate, green leafy vegetables including collard greens, mustard greens, and kale, and calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice.

Iron requirements of teenagers are relatively high. By eating a varied diet, a vegetarian can meet his or her iron needs, while avoiding the excess fat and cholesterol found in red meats such as beef or pork. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, eat a food containing vitamin C as part of the meal. Citrus fruits and juices (for example, orange juice), tomatoes, and broccoli are all good sources of vitamin C. Foods which are high in iron include broccoli, raisins, watermelon, spinach, black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses, chickpeas, and pinto beans.

Vitamin B12 is a vitamin which only vegans (vegetarians eating no dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and birds) need to add to their diet. Some cereals and fortified soy milks have vitamin B12 (check the label). Red Star T-6635 nutritional yeast flakes (Vegetarian Support Formula) also supply vitamin B12.

Healthy Steps to Your Ideal Weight

Many teenagers are concerned about losing or gaining weight. To lose weight, look at your diet. If it has lots of sweet or fatty foods, replace them with fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. If your diet already seems healthy, try to get more exercise -- walking, running or swimming daily, for example.

If you are trying to gain weight, you will need to eat more food. Perhaps eating more often or eating foods somewhat higher in calories and lower in bulk will help. Try to eat three or more times a day whether you are trying to gain weight or lose weight. It is hard to get all of the nutritious foods you need if you only eat one meal a day.

If you feel that you cannot control your eating behavior or if you are losing a great deal of weight, you should discuss this with your health care provider.

Quick Foods for Busy People

With the demands of school and outside activities, it may often seem there is just not enough time to eat. Here are some foods that require little or no preparation. Some of these foods can be found in fast-food restaurants -- check the menu.

Apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, dried fruits, bagels and peanut butter, carrot or celery sticks, popcorn, pretzels, soy cheese pizza, bean tacos or burritos, salad, soy yogurt, soy milk, rice cakes, sandwiches, frozen juice bars.

A Vegetarian Diet Benefits Your Health, the Environment, and Animals Too!

Vegetarianism represents a positive move toward a cleaner and more compassionate world, a reduction in global hunger, and improved personal health. If you are concerned about the environment, consider meat production's negative impact on tropical rain forests, soil stability, and air and water quality. If you are concerned about animal rights, think about the billions of chickens and other animals slaughtered for food each year in the United States and the conditions in which animals killed for food are raised. If you are concerned about your own health, consider that vegetarians are generally at lower risk than non-vegetarians for heart disease, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer and obesity.

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Our health professionals, activists, and educators work with businesses and individuals to bring about healthy changes in your school, workplace, and community. Registered dietitians and physicians aid in the development of nutrition-related publications and answer member and media questions about vegetarian diets. The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization. Financial support comes primarily from memberships, contributions, and book sales.

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Site Updated
May 14, 2003

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