Feeding kids can be exhausting, and just when you think you’re safely out of the picky-eating years, you can find yourself faced with other dietary demands. Insert your newly proclaimed vegetarian teen that looks just like the teen who asked you for hamburgers for dinner yesterday.
Regardless of whether it is a short-term trend or a lifetime commitment, setting them up to be a knowledgeable vegetarian is a great way to support their decision.
One of the biggest concerns non-vegetarian parents have is whether their teen can meet all their nutrition needs, grow, and be healthy when modifying their diet this way. And the answer is… absolutely!
While there are specific nutrients that require a little more attention, a vegetarian diet is not only a healthy way of eating, it has other potential health benefits, like lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Depending on the type of vegetarian your teen is, their needs will vary slightly. There are four different types of vegetarian diets:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Includes milk, milk products and eggs but no other foods of animal origin.
- Lacto vegetarian: Includes milk and milk products but no other foods of animal origin.
- Ovo vegetarian: Includes eggs but no other foods of animal origin.
- Vegan: Includes no foods of animal origin.
The information below has been organized by the main nutrients that may be of concern.
Most foods contain some protein, but protein-rich vegetarian foods include milk, milk products, soy beverage, eggs, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), tofu and other soy products, nuts and seeds and their butters. Almond beverage, rice beverage and other plant-based beverages (except soy) are not good sources of protein.
Current evidence does not show the need to combine different types of foods to create “complete proteins.” Vegetarians and vegans who eat a variety of protein-rich foods every day are likely to meet their protein needs.
Calcium is found in milk, milk products, fortified plant-based beverages like soy beverage, tofu made with calcium, almonds and almond butter, leafy greens, and cooked beans like white, navy, black and pinto. Calcium needs are high during adolescence. Your teen should aim for 1300 milligrams of calcium per day. If they don’t drink at least 500 mL (two cups) of milk or a calcium-fortified beverage each day, they will likely need a supplement to reach this goal.
Vitamin D is found in milk, fortified milk products, fortified plant-based beverages like soy beverage, and fortified margarine. If your teen doesn’t drink at least 500 mL (two cups) of milk or a fortified plant-based beverage each day, a daily supplement with 400 IU may be helpful in meeting their need for vitamin D.
Find more sources of calcium and vitamin D here.
Vegetarian sources of iron include legumes, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy green vegetables, and tofu. The iron in these foods is not as well absorbed as iron from animal foods. However, eating them with a source of vitamin C can help. For example, have breakfast cereal with blueberries or bean chili in tomato sauce.
Iron needs go up during adolescence because of increased blood volume and muscle mass. Girls also need extra iron because of their periods. This, plus the lower level of iron absorption from plant-based foods, puts vegetarian teens at higher risk for iron deficiency. A supplement with 11 milligrams iron (for males) or 15 mg iron (for females) may be helpful. If iron deficiency is already an issue, your healthcare provider will prescribe the right amount of iron for your teen.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods and fortified foods. Vegans, because they don’t eat any animal foods, must either meet their vitamin B12 needs from fortified foods, like nutritional yeast or veggie “meats,” or a supplement. Vegetarians that have milk, milk products, and eggs will get some vitamin B12 from food, but a supplement may also be beneficial.
Zinc is found in legumes, nuts and seeds, tofu, eggs, milk and milk products, wheat germ and bran. If a variety of these foods are eaten each day, your teen is likely getting enough.
Putting it all together
Having a teen who chooses a vegetarian diet may be stressful at first, but it will get easier. A one-a-day multivitamin with minerals, that’s made for teens, may lessen some of that anxiety and will help ensure that they are meeting their nutrient needs. After that, it’s about finding new recipes and adapting family favourites to keep your teen eating with the rest of the family. Here are some recipe ideas to get you started:
- Dietitians of Canada’s Cookspiration has many vegetarian recipes for the whole family to try.
- Check out Half Your Plate where the goal is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. This website has lots of great recipes to try and instructional videos by Chef Michael Smith to show you how.
- Looking for ways to cook lentils? Check out Canadian Lentils recipes.
- Healthy Families has a great Crowd Pleasing Vegetarian Chili to try.
Have a favourite vegetarian recipe to share? Post it below.
If you have more questions about your teen and their vegetarian food choices call (or email) HealthLink BC at 8-1-1 to speak to a registered dietitian for free.