I tried not to panic when my fourteen-year-old daughter, Emily, suddenly decided to become vegetarian. I was used to modifying my family’s meals; my husband has Celiac and my younger daughter’s taste buds are undeniably finicky. Turns out, finding adequately nutritional foods to round out meatless meals was more of a challenge than I thought, especially for Emily, who wasn’t exactly fond of vegetables or legumes.
A sign of independence
“Becoming vegetarian can be a sign of teens asserting their identity,” says Jessica Begg, a Vancouver-based Registered Dietitian with Flourish Wellness and Nutrition. “Proclaiming they’re vegetarian and the rest of the family isn’t sets them apart and is an indication they’re exploring who they are separate from the rest of the family.” Other factors can also be environmental or cruelty to animal based which was true in Emily’s case. “Something struck them in a way that causes them to think vegetarian means no meat,” says Mary Bamford, Registered Dietitian and founder of Essence Nutrition Counseling in Toronto. “If they’re concerned about cruelty to animals and an environmentally friendly planet, doing vegetarian correctly also means being kind to themselves.”
Parents need to be especially vigilant that their daughter’s’ desire to protest cruelty to animals is not just a foil for something more serious. “Kids that age, especially teen girls, sometimes claim they’re vegetarians as a way of hiding an eating disorder. They typically cut out meat first,” says Begg. “Parents need to make sure their daughters are eating enough and that they’re gaining weight appropriately.”
Vegetarian or Carbotarian?
One of the first things parents can do is keep an open dialogue with their children and insist that their new way of eating must become a joint effort. “To go completely vegetarian overnight turns the family upside down and can cause moms a lot of stress,” says Bamford. I could relate. With my stress meter rising, I chose the easiest, fastest way of satisfying Emily’s dietary wishes. I stopped in at my local health food store and stocked up on vegetarian versions of Emily’s favourite foods: yam fries, soy nuggets and tofu wieners. Emily turned her nose up at even the slightest suggestion of black bean dip with pita chips or vegetarian lasagna. She had become a “carbotarian,” a term coined by Bamford to describe kids that still lean heavily towards cheese, pasta, breads and sweets. “Most of them are not eating enough vegetables or whole grains so their diets become very nutrient-poor. A multi-vitamin will usually make up for a lack of B12 but it doesn’t make up for the iron or the zinc or other minerals you get from beans, peas, lentils, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables and orange vegetables.”
There is such a thing as an overweight vegetarian. Kids can gain weight yet be undernourished at the same time if their diet consists mainly of high-fat processed foods. Switch deep fried corn chips for baked kale chips or whole grain pita bread to dip into salsa or hummus, for example.
But you’re still growing!
After a month, Emily began to show the effects of her limited diet. She fell asleep on the couch after school, her complexion was pale and she dreaded gym class. “Lack of energy and trouble concentrating in school can be a sign that your teen isn’t getting what she needs from her diet. How you approach what you’re seeing is important,” says Begg. “Saying that you notice your child seems more tired than usual is a non-confrontational way of pointing out what you might think is a dietary issue.” Bamford says it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor for a baseline checkup. “Tell your physician that your child wants to go vegetarian and you’d like blood work to measure iron and B12 levels. It’s also a good idea to follow up in six months to determine possible gross deficiencies.”
More harm than good?
I worried that Emily was compromising her growth and development with her self-designed carbotarian diet. According to Bamford, it was her brain that I should have been most concerned about. “You can have a very sound vegetarian diet with all the proteins, minerals and everything you need. What will be missing will be DHA and EPA, a type of Omega 3 fat that usually comes from animals and is essential for brain growth and development in teenagers. For a kid who becomes a very strict vegetarian and won’t eat eggs or fish and won’t take a fish oil capsule, they can get an algae source DHA supplement. Fish oil supplements are better as they provide both DHA and EPA.”
If at first she doesn’t succeed…
Being vegetarian proved a lot more difficult than Emily expected. After a few months she gave up and returned to eating her favourite roast beef and chicken dinners. “Your child may try and not end up with favourable results,” says Bamford. “That doesn’t mean they won’t one day revisit a vegetarian lifestyle.” Perhaps Emily was a little overzealous. “When making such a huge dietary change, it’s important to take it slow. Make an agreement that you are willing to learn one new vegetarian recipe a week as long as your child will try one new vegetable a week,” says Bamford. “Eating vegetarian during the day but a regular dinner that includes meat in the evening could work. You can point out that they’re still doing a lot for the planet by eating only 3 vegetarian meals a week. The trade-off for eating inexpensive beans means there’s more money available for a grass fed organic steak.”
Getting kids involved in meal planning is a good idea. They’re more likely to choose healthy foods if they’re able to voice their likes and dislikes. Being vegetarian does take more work and they should be aware of that. Balancing out their daily requirements of nutrients takes planning and preparation.
When your child begins to assert his or her independence it’s important that the family embraces and encourages it, even if it means making some changes at the dinner table. Why not skip the fast-food drive thru and visit a vegetarian restaurant together instead? You might just make some delicious discoveries yourself!
Top foods for teen vegetarians
Consult Canada’s Food Guide for vegetarian alternatives and serving suggestions:
Look for meat alternatives that are real food, not heavily processed versions of popular junk foods. Beans, peas, lentils, tofu and tempeh are some examples of good proteins. Consider a plant-based protein shake to top up their daily levels. ND Shake for Teens combines a nutritious blend of plant-based protein with greens, berries and customized multi-vitamin especially for teens.
If they’re vegan, which means cutting out all dairy products in addition to meat, determine how they will get their calcium. Calcium-fortified soymilk or calcium set tofu are excellent alternatives to milk. Surprisingly, leafy greens are also a rich source of calcium, particularly, broccoli, kale, collard greens and spinach!
Expand their nut horizons. Almond or cashew butters are tasty spread on apples or in cookies and have only slightly less protein than peanut butter but more minerals, like zinc
Switch to fortified whole grain breads and cereals for iron and fibre. Some grains, like quinoa are higher in protein than others but are not an acceptable protein source. It’s a nutritious grain but doesn’t compare to tofu or other protein alternatives.
Decide on DHA and EPA sources for optimum brain development. Will your child eat fish or take supplements? Teens need around 300mg of DHA a day and 200-400 mg of EPA.
Consider adding nutritional supplements – It doesn’t hurt to use supplements like iron, B12 or zinc for back up. Consult your doctor for a recommended dosage.
Vitamin C helps with iron absorption so be sure to add a fruit or vegetable that contains adequate amounts. Broccoli, kiwi and oranges are good sources.
Choose healthy fats. Use a vacuum pump for spraying olive, or avocado or coconut oil on air-popped popcorn and sprinkle chili or garlic powder on top for zesty flavour. Forgo butter and salt – no one will notice with the delicious taste of coconut and chili!