Part of a parent’s job is to ensure their child is eating a well-balanced diet.
So what should they do when a pre-teen or teen wants to be a vegetarian?
The good news from a Spectrum Health dietitian and pediatrician is that a vegetarian diet—or even a vegan variety—can be healthy for growing kids.
It starts at home with online resources and books and it involves frank discussions with your child.
Parents can turn to a professional dietitian for help if needed.
“It’s especially important with teens and pre-teens—because they are still growing—to make sure they’re doing it in a way to protect their growth and health,” said Sarah Flessner, a Spectrum Health registered dietitian.
Identify the reason
Why do you want to become a vegetarian?
That is the first question Miranda Hillard, MD, a pediatrician with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, will ask a teenager who’s considering making this switch.
“Are they doing this in a way that is a restrictive eating plan or is it healthy?” Dr. Hillard said.
Flessner agreed with this need to establish a motivation.
She said some teens feel strongly about environmental issues and animal welfare. Many have seen movies and documentaries that promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
She encourages kids to embrace those convictions—but they should be smart about it.
The healthy approach is plant-based: eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and healthy sources of protein, Dr. Hillard said.
“French fries and Oreos are vegan,” she said. “It’s very easy to be a junk food vegan.”
Flessner encouraged parents to make sure their children are not eliminating whole food groups without replacing them with something.
If they’re not getting protein from meat or dairy products, they should turn to other good protein sources such as beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, nut butters or soy products such as tofu and tempeh.
Same thing for iron, which is found in leafy greens, beans and fortified breads and cereal.
Good sources of calcium and vitamin D are also important, Dr. Hillard said. Bones close up for calcium deposits around the age of 21. Later in life, particularly for post-menopausal women, they will draw on those deposits.
Vitamin B12 consumption is also important, as it is only available in animal products such as meat and dairy, Flessner said. A vegetarian will get it through eggs and cheese, but a vegan needs to seek out B12-fortified foods or vitamin supplements.
A red flag
While many teens embrace vegetarianism for noble reasons, both Flessner and Dr. Hillard warned parents that it can be a red flag for eating disorders.
Identifying a child’s motivation and monitoring their diet and behavior can help parents and medical professionals catch these cases.
Make sure they are still eating enough calories and not losing a lot of weight, Flessner said.
Also, be sure to notice if they’re becoming overly preoccupied with their appearance or if they’re embracing clean-eating fads, such as an entirely sugar-free diet.
“It can be a red flag or a shelter to really restrictive eating patterns,” Dr. Hillard said. “Make sure they’re interested in food preparation and they’re getting into the kitchen and buying groceries and doing it in a healthy manner.”
A healthy path
If your child is choosing vegetarianism for positive reasons, it can be rewarding and lead them on a path to a healthy adult life.
Dr. Hillard currently eats a plant-based diet and Flessner had been a vegetarian for a few years in high school and college. It led her to explore ethnic foods and she ate a much larger variety of fruits and vegetables.
“I really admire those kids who feel strongly about eating a vegetarian diet, whether it’s for health or environmental or animal welfare reasons,” Flessner said. “Kids who do it for those reasons tend to do the work and feel good about it.”