Help! My Teenager Is Going Vegan

Filed under: Teens, Nutrition: Health, Mealtime, Dear Karla

Dear Karla,
My teenager daughter has decided to follow a group of her friends and skip out on all items that come from animal meat. I am OK if she cuts back a bit, but myself grew up with agriculture all around me, so am a bit confused. Because she is still growing tall I am concerned that she may be lacking nutrition from doing this. Should there be any concerns I have or things I can help educate her on?

Great question Kathy. It's important for parents to know what their child's body needs to make sure their growth is not impaired, especially when your child is embarking on a diet unfamiliar to your family. A recent survey shows that teen vegetarianism is on the rise, tripling in the last ten years. In 1997 1 percent of teens were active vegetarians; today that number is up to 3 per cent.There is nothing wrong with being a vegetarian, as plant based eating has many wonderful health benefits. However, anyone who wants to swap to a vegetarian diet needs to be equipped with knowledge of key nutrients that their new diet may be lacking, so they can supplement them with other foods.

Common terms you need to know:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian means they consume no animal flesh, but dairy and eggs are accepted.
  • Pesca vegetarians eat dairy, eggs and fish, but no other forms of animal flesh.
  • Lacto vegetarians consume only dairy products.
  • Vegan - consume no food items of animal origin.
The top nutrients vegetarians can lack, and which affect growth and the body's ability to repair itself, include: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12.

is commonly found in animal flesh. It i classified as a complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids our body needs but does not make on its own. Plant sources of protein are classified as incomplete proteins, as they do not contain all the essential amino acids. So, vegetarians need to combine foods so they don't miss out on ANY amino acids.

  • Example: Combine beans in a tortilla to get a complete set of the amino acids your body needs.
Good sources of protein (you should aim for a source in each meal) include: fish, eggs, egg substitutes, dairy, soy/cows milk, soybeans, tofu, textured vegetarian protein (TVP), cheese (cottage, soy, goat or cow milk based), nuts, yogurt etc.

Quinoa is a fantastic nutty grain that is considered a complete protein which is great news for any one wanting to either cut back on animal origin food or eating a vegetarian diet. Quinoa is a great addition to as a side dish or the main component of a salad.

Iron is important for transporting oxygen in our red blood cells, helping with energy levels. There are 2 kinds of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is easily absorbed into the blood and found in animal flesh, where as non-heme is not as easily absorbed and found in plants (such as beans, vegetables and fortified cereals). One way to increase iron absorption is to make sure you accompany sources of iron with something rich in Vitamin C, like strawberries or lemon juice.

Calcium is a mineral found in different forms of milk and other dairy items. Cottage cheese is a great example of a great source of protein and calcium. If your child decides to skip out on dairy products all together, insist that they get a calcium fortified beverage such as soy or rice milk or orange juice (orange juice is a last resort as it consists mainly of sugar and can affect the tooth enamel). Don't forget about vegetables as a calcium source. Encourage your child to consume a minimum of 2-3 everyday, as they are great sources of calcium. Top calcium containing vegetables include: collards, soybeans, white beans, navy beans, chickpeas, butternut squash, broccoli, dried figs, sweet potato and other leafy greens.

Vitamin D is something we ALL fall short in and cannot rely on foods supplying us. A supplement is strongly recommended for all family members. Make sure you buy supplements that include vitamin D3, as it is the most easily absorbed by the body, and make sure to take it with food.

Vitamin B12 is found mainly in meat. Look for it in fortified milk beverages and cereals. Your child may consider taking a B12 supplement everyday with food. When buying B12 look for 'cyanocobalamin,' as this is one is the most absorbable forms.

Karla Heintz (BSc) is a nutrition educator, speaker, consultant and author of the national book 'Picky? Not Me, Mom! A parents' guide to children's nutrition.' She has worked with athletes and families for about 10 years on ways to improve nutrition for better performance and health.

If you have a question you would like answered please leave it in the comments section below.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.