Kids' Eating: Is it safe for my teenager to follow a vegetarian diet?
Although all people are different, a healthy vegetarian diet can certainly meet the nutritional needs of a teen. As of 2005, about 3 percent of teens were vegetarian, so your kid is in good company. In fact, many vegetarian teens have diets that are markedly better than those of non-vegetarian teens. Studies have shown that, compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts, vegetarian teens are twice as likely to eat fruits or vegetables, and less likely to eat sweets, salty snack foods, fast foods and fatty foods.
You can help your kid make sure she's a healthy vegetarian by encouraging her to eat a variety of foods from the groups below:
Grains: This group includes breads, pasta, cereal, rice and other grain products. Whole grains should be chosen frequently. These foods provide iron, zinc, fiber and vitamins.
Dried beans, nuts and other protein-rich foods: These foods provide not only protein but also vitamins and minerals. Teens should get at least six servings a day with a serving equal to half a cup of cooked beans or tofu, two tablespoons of nut butters, a quarter cup of nuts, an ounce of meat analog, an egg, three-quarters of an ounce of cheese or four ounces of milk, soy milk or yogurt.
Fruits and vegetables: A variety of fruits and vegetables should be eaten every day. This group is a key source of vitamin C and beta-carotene.
Fats: Fat sources for vegetarians include vegetable oils, nuts and nut butters, avocado and margarine. This group provides calories to support growth as well as essential fatty acids.
Calcium-rich foods: Some vegetarian teens get most of their calcium from dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt. Other teens, who either follow a vegan diet or don't eat many dairy products, get calcium from calcium-fortified soy milk and juice, green vegetables (bok choy, collards, kale, broccoli and mustard greens) and calcium-set tofu.
Vitamin B12: This essential vitamin is found in dairy products, eggs and foods fortified with vitamin B12 (fortified soy milk, breakfast cereal, fake meats and nutritional yeast). Vitamin B12 supplements are another option.
You can also help your daughter by cooking vegetarian meals that the entire family can share, helping her learn to prepare vegetarian foods and stocking some vegetarian convenience foods like veggie burgers and frozen entrees. Of course, if your kid's eating has markedly restricted her diet (for example, avoiding carbohydrates or eating very limited portions) before becoming vegetarian, you should check for signs of an eating disorder.