What do you do when your teen announces she’s decided to become a vegetarian? A parent’s first reaction may be to consider this newest revelation a phase that will soon pass — like her choice in music or fashion. But there are many reasons teens chose to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle: better health, compassion for animals, concern for global sustainability, religious principles or maybe just a simple dislike for the taste of meat.
Whatever the reason, it’s important to listen to your child so you can support her in the decision, says Tryna Peterson, the mother of a Bothell High School senior who became a vegetarian at age 15. “We knew her mind was made up about it, and we decided to listen to our daughter about why she wanted to make this choice.”
It’s not always easy. When a non-vegetarian family has one member who decides to become a vegetarian, there can be some concerns about how to make it work for family meals — and if it’s going to be a healthy way for a teen to eat.
Becoming a vegetarian means more than simply picking the meat out of an omnivorous diet. It requires thinking about alternative sources of protein, as well as making sure your teen is getting enough of a selection of key vitamins and minerals that are harder to maintain in a vegetarian diet.
Kelly Morrow, a registered dietitian and core faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University, says she often sees this lacking. “There are mountains of research out there that show that eating a plant-based diet can be extremely healthy,” Morrow says. “But if [teens] are eating the standard American-teen diet, that could mean they’re just eating a lot of junk food and processed stuff, and simply eliminating the meat. I’ve met a lot of teen vegetarians who do not like to eat vegetables!” That’s why she advises parents to be involved in the nutritional planning process.
The fact is, it’s easier for our bodies to absorb some minerals when they come from an animal source, Morrow explains. Iron, for example, is easily available in red meat. The redder the meat, the higher the iron content. So with a vegetarian diet, it’s important to learn how to get enough iron from non-meat sources: foods like cooked beans and lentils, enriched breakfast cereals and blackstrap molasses. Or, Morrow says, some vegetarians will cook their foods in a cast-iron skillet, which allows some iron to absorb into the food. Iron is essential for teen girls at the onset of menstruation, and for boys, it’s vital during their adolescent growth spurts.
Like iron, zinc is another mineral that can be lacking in an unbalanced vegetarian diet. It’s essential for having a well-functioning immune system, and it is readily available in foods like shellfish. But according to the National Institutes of Health, zinc can also be found in baked beans, almonds, cashews, yogurt, chickpeas and fortified cereals.
If your teen is becoming a lacto-ovo vegetarian (still eating eggs and dairy products), then getting enough calcium might not be such a concern, Morrow says. But if they are vegan (eating no animal products of any kind), then calcium needs to be to found in foods like cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, fortified orange juice, or fortified soy or almond milk. Calcium is especially important for girls, Morrow explains, since half the bone mass they will have for the rest of their life is made during adolescence.
Supplements may not be a bad idea. Morrow recommends a daily multivitamin and says vegan diets especially pose difficulties in getting enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which may need to be supplemented.
Focus on protein
Peterson was concerned her daughter may not be getting enough protein, so she made some adjustments in shopping for foods and preparing family meals. “I take the meat out for her, but then I also make sure to replace it with some other kind of protein. If I’m making tacos, I’ll cook beef for us, and then warm up some vegetarian refried beans she can put in hers. If we are having steak, I’ll be sure to get some tofu we can grill for her. There are a lot of great things made from soy that are meat replacements,” Peterson says. Dairy products like cheese are also a great source of protein, as are legumes such as dried beans and dried peas, nuts, peanut butter and tempeh. Peterson says her daughter has been much more adventurous in trying new foods — and is learning to cook! — since becoming a vegetarian.
Another thing Peterson does for her daughter — something that Morrow highly recommends — is to make sure she is being monitored by a doctor or nutritionist. Simple blood tests can show nutritional deficiencies, and Morrow recommends her patients keep a journal of everything in their diet for three to five days. She types this information into a special computer program used by dietitians, and it will show what adjustments need to be made to keep the teen’s diet balanced.
Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance writer and mother of two who became a vegetarian when she was 15.
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