So Your Teenager is Going Vegetarian

How to come to terms with the decision—and keep them healthy.

So your little darling has emerged into the rollicking years of adolescence. The hormones are raging, piercings and odd haircuts materialize, and her ears are forever glued to a cell phone or an iPod. For better and for worse, your teenager is beginning to become an autonomous, freethinking individual.

Then, just as you think you couldn’t find one more thing to fret over, she announces she is going vegan or vegetarian. Shiver.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Patty, a Hamilton-based musician and mother of a 14-year-old daughter who went veggie four years ago. “Holly announced that she didn’t want to eat animals anymore, that it was cruel and bad for the environment.”

“I had so many concerns,” she says. “I was terrified she would become malnourished. I was also concerned if my kitchen would have to turn into a restaurant. Preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for a family is hard enough—having to figure Holly’s vegetarianism into all that was a bit overwhelming.”

Rightly so. Concerns about nutrition aside, the past few years have seen media stories trumpeting the plight of sickly vegan infants and vegetarian teens masking eating disorders with a newfound allegiance against animal cruelty. Despite the media-fueled handwringing, several studies, most notably in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, conclude that with appropriate food choices, veggie teens can be just as healthy as their omnivorous amigos.

The Nuts and Bolts of a Veggie Diet

According to both the Dietitians of Canada and Health Canada, properly monitored vegan and vegetarian diets can be just as healthy as an omnivorous diet—even for children. However, a few known pitfalls exist. Ensuring your teen gets enough protein, calcium and vitamin B12 is essential to keeping him the spry and vivacious pain in your backside.

“Plants aren’t reliable sources of vitamin B12, so it’s important to keep several sources of fortified foods available,” says Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian specializing in vegan and vegetarian nutrition. Veggie “meats,” fortified nondairy milks (like soy or rice milk) and cereals are your best bet here, or double up and get your kid started on a good multivitamin. Make sure the daily supplement includes at least 10 micrograms of B12.

Ensuring your teen gets enough calcium is another important factor, especially if he goes vegan (meaning he cuts out dairy and eggs in addition to meat). “A recent study showed that vegans are 1.3 times more susceptible to wrist fractures,” says Davis, although the risk is small. Approximately 50 percent of vegans don’t get enough calcium in their diets, which can especially problematic for your teen’s growing bones.

Health Canada recommends at least 1300 milligrams of calcium per day for adolescents. The best non-dairy sources? Fortified soymilks, orange juice and dark, leafy greens like kale, Chinese greens and broccoli. Other foods like legumes, almonds, figs, and surprisingly, black molasses also pack a healthy punch of calcium.

Finally, protein. “Despite what everyone thinks, few vegetarians and vegans have problems getting enough protein,” says Davis. Ten to 15 percent of your kid’s caloric intake should come from protein. Lucky for veggie teens, most foods, including nuts, vegetables and legumes, contain 10 percent or more of their total calories in proteins.

“The key to success in a vegetarian diet is variety and avoiding empty calories like junk food,” says Davis. Keeping a kitchen full of grab-and-go veggie-friendly snacks like nuts, granola bars, fruit and veggie dogs is a good start. “The most important thing a parent can do is educate themselves and learn how to best support their child’s choice.”

Eating Disorders and Vegetarianism

So are eating disorders a serious threat to vegetarian and vegan teens? According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls. And some recent studies have suggested that some teens may use vegetarianism or veganism as a thick veneer to mask harmful eating habits.

Kids wanting to consume less food may direct easy fibs at hapless parents, concealing their motives in the rhetoric of animal rights or ethical food consumption. Merryl Bear, director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, says, “It’s important to tease out why your child has decided not to eat animal products. Discuss with your child about their moral and environmental reasons for making the switch, or if their choice is based in weight management.”

Davis agrees: “Vegetarianism and veganism can certainly be used as a backdrop for removing too many foods. If your child is avoiding a diet that isn’t filled with a healthy variety, it could be cause for concern.”

However, a teen’s choice to go veggie is most often an earnest attempt at adopting a healthier, more ethical way of living, and is worthy of a bit of encouragement. For example, treat him to a vegetarian or vegan cookbook, and invite him to suggest a few recipes for the family to try. Or offer to sign him up for a local vegetarian cooking class.