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Help! My Teenager wants to be a Vegetarian!

If you are reading this then there is a high chance that you have experienced this phenomenon and that you are either scared that they won’t be eating all the nutrients that their body needs, or you haven’t a clue about vegetarian cooking or both.

Never fear, it is perfectly possible for any age group to develop and thrive on a vegetarian diet and for normal family meals to be adapted quickly and easily. In fact, there is every chance that your family already eats vegetarian sometimes without realising it, or could easily do so without offending anyone’s tastebuds. It is after all a healthy and environmentally sustainable way to eat.

It is very common for teenagers to start to develop beliefs and exert their ideas over all aspects of their lives as they seek greater choice and independence. In fact we want them to have the courage of their own convictions and to be strong in their beliefs. Find out what their reasons are for wanting to change their diet; it may be environmental sustainability, animal cruelty issues or something else.

Be on the look out quietly for body image issues. When a certain way of eating is taken on outwardly for one reason but really to lose weight then alarm bells should ring. Many Australian children are overweight but during the rollercoaster ride of the teenage years it is only too easy for a desire to lose some weight to tip over into disordered eating which can become a long journey which is difficult to resolve. Always emphasise health and fitness when talking about good food choices and also the importance of being active. It’s not about looks!

That aside, there are a few nutrients to keep in mind when feeding the teenage (or any age) vegetarian. What makes them different is their high growth rate and therefore greater need for both nutrients and energy (kJ or Calories), and the onset of menstruation for girls which increases their need for iron.

The nutrients which most need to be monitored are: Protein, iron, calcium, zinc, omega three fatty acids and vitamin B12. With a little planning these can easily achieve recommended intake levels.

Planning is the key. Having a dozen or so good vegetarian recipes that are easy and fast to make will transform your life. Encourage your child to cook at least once a week and to participate in their new dietary pattern. Having some ‘bases’ in the fridge and pantry which contain protein, iron and omega threes will make school lunch preparation, snacks and last minute dinners easier and healthier. There are some pre-prepared products in supermarkets, but generally you’d do better to make your own. Commercial products are often high in salt, sugar and other additives and lower in fibre than homemade alternatives.

Vegan diets are a whole new level and the vegan teenager will have to plan carefully and eat very mindfully indeed to meet their nutrient targets. It is not a diet that I would recommend during the years of rapid growth and development. As well as foods, supplements of Vitamin B12 and possibly iron will be needed.

Very sporty teens (especially those competing at a high level) should seek some sports nutrition advice. They also may need supplements if their training regime is arduous.

With all this in mind, you can achieve a healthy diet for the new vegetarian, have some fun along the way exploring new foods and recipes and stay sane!

Read my next blog post for some specifics on nutrients to watch out for in a vegetarian diet. Or contact me to get specific help for you and your family as they ease into this new arrangement!

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