Teen Vegetarians Can Meet Nutrition Needs

Relax, parents. Adolescents who eschew meat are becoming more common

Many parents worry their vegetarian teen won't get all the nutrients necessary for good health. Depending on the type of vegetarian diet your child follows, there may be cause for concern of developing an eating disorder.If the teenager in your family has decided to go meat-free, you're not alone. In a recent national survey, 8 per cent of 15- to 18-year-olds reported being vegetarian. Vegetarianism covers a wide range of eating styles. Semi-vegetarians avoid only red meat; they eat poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but avoid meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians include dairy and eggs, but no meat, poultry, or fish. Pesco-vegetarians eat fish, dairy products and eggs, but avoid meat and poultry. Vegans are the strictest. They eat only plant foods and shun all animal products.

Many parents worry their vegetarian teen won't get all the nutrients necessary for good health. Depending on the type of vegetarian diet your child follows, there may be cause for concern. A number of studies show that vegetarian teens don't meet daily targets for calories, protein, calcium, iron, and zinc.

It's important to keep a watchful eye on your teen's diet . The growing teenage body demands more energy, iron, zinc and calcium than at any other age. And vegetarianism in girls can sometimes be the first sign of an eating disorder. Research has shown that some girls use a vegetarian diet as a way to hide an eating disorder.

Here's the good news. If they are properly planned, vegetarian diets can provide all the nutrients adolescents need . A plant-based diet might also protect your teen's future health. Large studies suggest that, compared to their meat-eating peers, vegetarians have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure, gallstones and certain cancers.

The keys to a nutritionally complete vegetarian diet are planning and variety.


It's needed to build and repair all body tissues, including muscles, bones and skin. Vegetarians get protein from four main sources: dairy and eggs; beans, peas, lentils and soy meats; nuts and seeds; grains and cereals. As long as a variety of protein foods is eaten over the course of a day, there's no need to worry about combining different protein foods at every meal.


It's vital for building strong bones and teeth. Because most peak bone mass is achieved by age 18, teenagers have high daily calcium requirements (1,300 milligrams). Getting too little calcium during the teen years can increase the risk for osteoporosis later in life.

Lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians can meet daily calcium needs by including low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese in their daily diet. Additional calcium sources, which vegans rely on, include fortified soy or rice beverages, fortified juice, almonds, soybeans, bok choy, broccoli, kale and figs.

Vegetarian teens need at least eight servings from the calcium-rich food group daily. Servings from this group also count toward servings from other food groups.

Vitamin D

It helps the body absorb more calcium from foods and deposit it in bones. Oily fish, egg yolks and butter contain vitamin D. Foods fortified with the nutrient include milk, soy and rice beverages, and margarine. Vegans must get adequate vitamin D from daily sun exposure (unlikely in Canada), fortified foods, or a multivitamin.


It's needed to maintain the supply of hemoglobin in the blood, which carries oxygen to all body tissues. Iron is especially important for teen girls, due to menstruation.

Since vegetarian iron sources are not as easily absorbed as animal sources, vegetarians have higher daily iron requirements than meat-eaters. Food sources include beans, lentils, nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, breakfast cereals, and dried fruit.

Iron absorption can be increased by eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods. For example, eating dried apricots with a glass of orange juice will boost iron intake.


It's essential for growth, sexual maturation, wound healing and a healthy immune system. Vegans get zinc from nuts, legumes, whole grains, breakfast cereals, tofu, and soy-based meat analogs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians get additional zinc from milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs.

Vitamin B12

B12 plays a role in cell division, the nervous system and the production of red blood cells. Vegetarians need to include three sources in their daily diet: fortified soy or rice beverage (125 ml), nutritional yeast (15 ml), fortified breakfast cereal (30 grams), or fortified soy analog (42 grams), milk (125 ml), yogurt (175 ml), or one large egg.

Omega-3 fats

These special fats may protect us from heart disease and possibly aid in weight control. Vegetarians who don't eat fish need to get small amounts from plant sources such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, canola and flaxseed oils.


I strongly recommend that vegetarian teens take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to help them meet the daily allowances for most nutrients. Choose one that supplies five to 10 micrograms of vitamin B12.

However, a multivitamin won't provide all the iron and calcium teenagers need, and many won't provide a full day's zinc. Thoughtful food choices remain essential. Teens who don't eat enough calcium-rich foods should take a separate calcium supplement.

Encourage your teen to learn more about vegetarianism. Have them share some of the responsibility for their new diet. Take them grocery shopping, read vegetarian cookbooks together, and get them to participate in cooking. Have your teen plan and prepare a weekly vegetarian dinner for the whole family.

Variety, planning and support at home will help your teenager embark on a healthy vegetarian diet -- and pave the way for lifelong healthy eating habits.

Vegetarian food guide

Daily suggested food-intake needs:

6 servings of grains

1 slice of bread

½ cup (125 ml) cooked grain or cereal

1 oz. (28g) ready-to-eat cereal

5 servings of protein

½ cup (125 ml) cooked beans, peas or lentils

½ cup (125ml) tofu or tempeh

2 tbsp. (30ml) nut or seed butter

½ cup (60ml) nuts

1 oz. (28g) soy-based substitute, e.g. veggie burger

1 egg

½ cup (125ml) cow's milk or yogurt or fortified soymilk*

½ oz (14g) cheese*

½ cup (125ml) tempeh or calcium-set tofu*

¼ cup (60ml) almonds*

2 tbsp. (30ml) almond butter or sesame tahini*

½ cup(125ml) cooked soybeans*

¼ cup (60ml) soynuts*

4 servings of vegetables

½ cup (125ml) cooked vegetables

1 cup (250ml) raw vegetables

¼ cup (60ml) vegetable juice

1 cup* (250ml cooked) or 2 cups* (500ml raw): bok choy, broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage, kale, justard greens or okra

½ cup (125ml) fortified tomato juice*

2 servings of fruits

1 medium fruit

½ cup (125ml) cut up or cooked fruit

½ cup (125ml) fruit juice

¼ cup (60ml) dried fruit

½ cup (125ml) fortified fruit juice*

5 figs*

2 servings of fats

1 tsp. (5ml) oil, mayonnaise, or soft margarine

-*Calcium-rich foods

Source: Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetic Association

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 24). Teen Vegetarians Can Meet Nutrition Needs, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 28 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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