More and more teenagers are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan. Both groups give up all meat, poultry, and fish; vegans also give up eggs and dairy. Whether vegetarian or vegan, nutrition for teens should be well planned. That said, it shouldn't be complicated or daunting. Teens 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
Teen vegetarians and vegans 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?
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. See Top Protein Sources for the Plant-Based Diet.
Other Important Nutrients for Vegetarian and Vegan Teens
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're trying to gain weight, you'll 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. See also 5 Ways to Healthfully Gain Weight on a Vegan Diet.
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.
- Explore lots more healthy eating tips on VegKitchen’s Veg Kids and Teens page as well as in the Nutrition area.
- For lots more features on healthy lifestyle, please explore VegKitchen’s Healthy Vegan Kitchen page.
Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D. is the nutrition adviser to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Read more of her informative articles, plus lots more vegetarian and vegan information on The Vegetarian Resource Group’s web site.