young woman eating salad The long-term benefits of a vegetarian diet are well-known: Going meatless can lower a person’s risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. But if your teen follows a vegetarian diet, you may have concerns about whether they are getting the calories and nutrients they need to be healthy.

Naline Lai, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, Central Bucks in Doylestown, PA, offers guidance on creating a nutritious, balanced vegetarian diet for your teen — and shares the warning signs that can indicate your child has developed unhealthy eating habits.

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet is based mainly on plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. Instead of meat-based proteins, the emphasis is on plant-based proteins.

There are several different types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto vegetarian: no meat or eggs, but includes dairy products
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: no meat, but includes eggs and dairy products
  • Vegan: no meat, eggs, dairy or other animal products

Tips for creating a balanced vegetarian diet

Dr. Lai offers the following suggestions to help you create a balanced vegetarian diet for your child:

  • Include the major food groups in your teen’s meals throughout the day to promote balanced eating.
  • Monitor your child’s diet closely to make sure they are getting enough calories. Childhood is a time of rapid growth, and teens need more energy than adults to sustain an increase in height and weight. Some teens need 4,000 calories a day when they’re in a growth spurt! If your child needs more calories, offer foods that are high in fat, such as whole milk, nuts, nut butters, seeds and avocados.
  • Give your child a variety of different protein sources. Ideas include:
    • Legumes (beans, lentils, dried peas)
    • Soy products (tofu)
    • Meat substitutes (soy-based burgers, hot dogs)
    • Nuts (including nut spreads such as peanut or almond butter or tahini) and seeds
    • Eggs and dairy products
  • Make sure your teen is getting enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, B-12 and zinc, all of which can be low in some vegetarian diets.
    • Vegetarian-friendly foods rich in calcium include dairy products, green leafy vegetables (like kale), broccoli, beans, oranges, almonds, figs, tofu prepared with calcium, and calcium-fortified soy milk, rice milk and orange juice.
    • Iron-containing foods include dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, whole grains, blackstrap molasses and iron-fortified cereals. The vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables helps your child absorb iron from these sources.
    • Vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight and ingestion of food. Just 15-30 minutes a day of sun can provide the recommended daily allowance. Eggs are the only vegetarian food naturally rich in vitamin D; however, many products, such as cow’s milk and most nut milks, are fortified with vitamin D.  
    • Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products. Vegetarian kids who eat dairy products and eggs usually get an adequate amount of vitamin B-12. However, children on a vegan diet usually need to take a vitamin supplement.
    • Animal products provide the best source of zinc. Vegetarian-friendly sources of zinc include nuts, seeds, legumes, wheat germ and zinc-fortified foods.  

Signs your child’s dietary decisions may be unhealthy:

  • They make a dietary decision because of peer group influence.
  • They eat a limited variety of foods.
  • Their diet mainly consists of processed foods.
  • They choose to be vegetarian to lose weight.

The bottom line? If you follow your pediatrician’s guidance, vegetarian diets are safe for teens. Since nutritional needs change over time, your pediatrician will give nutritional guidance for your vegetarian child at all checkups and may refer your child to a registered dietitian.

Talking to your teen about healthy diet options and the importance of a balanced, nutritional meal will help them make healthy decisions now and in the future.

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