My teenage daughter is becoming vegetarian/vegan

Q: Is it healthy for my teenage daughter to be a vegetarian?

A: According to Karen Hudson, family nutrition program coordinator and nutrition specialist with K-State Research and Extension, a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be perfectly acceptable for teenagers. However, careful planning is the key to success.

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth, and nutrient needs are at an all-time high. In fact, half of the adult height is achieved during the teenage years. Fortunately, nature provides teens with a very healthy appetite. If they follow their internal guide, they will consume enough calories and protein regardless of whether they are meat eaters or vegetarians. This is not a time for dieting! Boys, as a rule, tend to eat enough. Girls, on the other hand, sometimes restrict their intake because of societal influences to be “model thin.”

Q: What nutrients will my daughter be lacking if she decides to become a vegan?

A: The purest form of a vegetarian diet is the vegan diet where nothing of animal origin (meat, milk, eggs) is eaten. For vegan teens that do not consume any food from animal sources, vitamin B12 is critical. Vitamin B12 is especially important for developing the nervous system and making red blood cells. If your teen does not get enough B12, anemia can result.

An individual who follows a strict vegan diet for years (without consuming sufficient B12) may suffer irreversible nerve damage. This does not have to be a problem if B12-fortified foods, such as cereals and meat analogs or vitamin supplements, are consumed.

Another important nutrient to consider is calcium. Many teens don’t drink milk, but they still need calcium. Even if they feel they have stopped growing in height, their bones will continue to grow in density well into their adult years. If your teen doesn’t want to consume dairy products, he or she can obtain adequate calcium from calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk. Also, legumes and some leafy green vegetables are good sources of calcium.

Zinc is another important nutrient in adolescence as it contributes to growth and sexual maturation. Although it is generously found in meat sources, it is also found in plant sources. Three cups a day of soy milk will provide about 1/3 of the daily requirement for teens. Fortified cereals are a good source. Legumes, nuts and green leafy vegetables provide some zinc. Because the absorption rate is considerably lower in plants than in animals, it is probably wise for teens to take a multivitamin-mineral supplement daily if they are not consuming several servings of the foods listed above.

Other forms of vegetarian diets are less restrictive, such as the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet where meat is avoided but milk and eggs are eaten, or the lacto-vegetarian, where meat and eggs are eliminated but milk is consumed. However, in all of the vegetarian diets, obtaining a sufficient amount of iron may be problematic. If teenagers ignore good sources of iron, they may become anemic. When girls menstruate, they lose iron in the process. Since they typically eat less food than boys, they need to emphasize foods that are high in iron. All teens, girls and boys, who exercise need plenty of iron-rich foods. Fortified cereals for breakfast go a long way toward meeting their needs. In addition, as dairy products do not have the iron contained in meat, it is vital that plant sources of iron are consumed, such as legumes, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, etc.

Q: As a parent, what can I do to ensure that my vegetarian teen eats a healthy diet?

A: A teen may decide to become a vegetarian but not have the time to commit to “doing it right.” To help your teen adopt a healthy vegetarian diet, you may want to pitch in and shop for some of the specialty foods like soy milk or prepare vegetarian meals for the whole family a few times a week. Talk with your teen about foods and recipes. Ultimately, everyone in the family may enjoy some of the new dishes. There are some quick snack foods that can tide a hungry teen over until dinnertime, including dried fruit, trail mix, popcorn, yogurt, veggie burgers, hummus with pita or bagels with nut butter. Avoid empty-calorie foods when possible since vegetarian foods, being plant-based, often are high in fiber and may cause a feeling of fullness before all the needed nutrients are consumed.

The key to a healthy vegetarian eating plan is variety. The more variety, the more likelihood your teen will be getting all of her or his needed nutrients.

There are many websites that will help you and your teen learn how to follow a healthy vegetarian diet. The USDA MyPyramid website,, can calculate how much of the various food groups a person needs to eat along with tips on vegetarian diets. You may also want to look at the Vegetarian Resource Group website,, for a great deal of information on vegetarianism.

— Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.