Health Encyclopedia

Vegetarian Teens Need Diet Advice

At a young age, some children who make the connection between their hamburger and the barnyard animals in their books announce that they're no longer eating meat. More often, though, children decide to shun animal-based food as teens.

The vegetarian rate among U.S. children and teens is a steady 2 percent. But the popularity of vegetarian diets among Hollywood stars and others in the media can influence teens.

Vegetarians fall into four major categories: ovo vegetarians, who eat eggs, but no meat; lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat dairy and egg products, but no meat; lacto vegetarians, who eat dairy products, but no eggs or meat; and vegans, who eat only plant-based foods.

If your teen wants vegetarian options, you may worry that dropping meat, poultry, and fish will be unhealthy. You need not fret about a child's growth as long as you provide dairy and eggs, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, nutrition experts say. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is a healthy choice for most children and teens.

Making good choices

Vegetarian teens need to take care to get enough of certain vitamins and minerals. Each day, they need 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 (found in dairy products, eggs, and vitamin-fortified foods); 400 IU of vitamin D (found in dairy products and fortified foods); 1,300 mg of calcium (found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, chickpeas, and fortified foods); 46 to 52 grams of protein (found in dairy products, eggs, tofu, nuts, and dried beans); 11 to 15 mg of iron (found in dried beans, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and fortified foods); and 12 mg (girls) to 15 mg (boys) of zinc (found in wheat germ, nuts, legumes, and fortified cereals).

Because fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are so filling, young vegetarians may feel full with fewer calories. So watch your teen's weight curve. Be wary if your teen seems to be using a vegetarian diet as a way to drastically cut back on how much food he or she eats. A teen with an eating disorder may follow a very restrictive diet under the guise of becoming a vegetarian.

Emphasize food variety. Talk to teens about selecting foods to provide energy. Shop or cook together to learn about a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism provides a way to explore all sorts of new foods. If followed correctly, the diet can provide a wide variety of healthy and wholesome foods. 

Menu magic

If you're worried about making separate vegetarian meals, try "sequential cooking."

For example, if you're making spaghetti with a tomato and meat sauce, cook the ground beef and the tomato sauce separately. Combine the two for some servings and not for others. Or make an entrée salad. Add egg and cheese slices for the vegetarian and chicken strips for the meat eaters.



Medical Reviewers:

  • McClintock, Heidi, RD, LD