Vegetarian Nutrition for Teenagers
Vegetarian Nutrition for Teenagers
by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.
More and more teenagers are choosing not to eat meat, poultry or fish.
They are becoming vegetarians. Teenage vegetarians 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
Probably the most frequent questions for teenage vegetarians are about
the nutritional adequacy of their food choices. A vegetarian diet can be
enjoyed by people of all ages. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is
variety. Just as your parents should be concerned if you only eat hamburgers,
they should also worry if you only eat potato chips and salad. A healthy,
varied vegetarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens,
whole grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes. Some vegetarians also choose
to eat dairy products and/or eggs.
Teenage vegetarians 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
What About Protein?
North American vegetarian teens eating varied diets rarely have any difficulty
getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories)
to support growth. Cow's milk and lowfat cheese are protein sources; however,
beans, breads, cereals, nuts, peanut butter, tofu, and soy milk are also
some foods that are especially good sources of protein. Only fruits, fats,
and alcohol do not provide much protein, and so a diet based only on these
foods would have a good chance of being too low in 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.
Other Important Nutrients for Vegetarian Teenagers
Especially during adolescence, calcium is used to build bones. Bone density
is determined in adolescence and young adulthood; so it is important to
include three or more good sources of calcium in your diet every day. Cow's
milk and dairy products do contain calcium. However, there are other good
sources of calcium such as tofu processed with calcium sulfate, green leafy
vegetables including collard greens, mustard greens, and kale, and calcium-fortified
soy milk and orange juice.
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
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,
If you are trying to gain weight, you will 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.
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
Quick Foods for Busy People
With the demands of school and outside activities, it may often seem there
is just not enough time to eat. Here are some foods that require little
or no preparation. Some of these foods can be found in fast-food restaurants
-- check the menu.
Apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, dried fruits, bagels
and peanut butter, carrot or celery sticks, popcorn, pretzels, soy cheese
pizza, bean tacos or burritos, salad, soy yogurt, soy milk, rice cakes,
sandwiches, frozen juice bars.
A Vegetarian Diet Benefits Your Health, the Environment, and Animals Too!
Vegetarianism represents a positive move toward a cleaner and more compassionate
world, a reduction in global hunger, and improved personal health. If you
are concerned about the environment, consider meat production's negative
impact on tropical rain forests, soil stability, and air and water quality.
If you are concerned about animal rights, think about the billions of chickens
and other animals slaughtered for food each year in the United States and
the conditions in which animals killed for food are raised. If you are
concerned about your own health, consider that vegetarians are generally
at lower risk than non-vegetarians for heart disease, high blood pressure,
some forms of cancer and obesity.
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