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Protein for the Teenage Vegetarian

Protein for the Teenage Vegetarian

If your family has long been meat-and-three-veg orientated then transitioning to a mindset around protein for a vegetarian can be tricky. However, there are lots of options available. You need not limit yourself to one ‘protein food’ in a meal either. Vegetarian meals often combine several sources of protein. The other thing to remember is that your daily protein intake can be spread over the whole day’s meals and doesn’t have to all be in dinner.

Protein Needs

According to the Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, average individual needs for adolescent individuals depend upon your weight and are:


Age 9—13 yrs 40g/day (0.94g/kg) 35g/day (0.87g/kg)

Age 14-18 yrs 65g/day (0.99g/kg) 45g/day (0.77g/kg)

Eggs and Dairy Products

Lacto-ovo vegetarians have the widest choice since they eat eggs and dairy products. Eggs are an excellent source of protein. A single egg contains 12.5g protein. So, two eggs for breakfast for a 12 year old boy and he has already got 37% of his daily protein needs! Milk is another great source of protein for growing bodies. Whole milk contains 3.3g/100g so a 250ml glass of milk would give you just over 8g protein. The low fat dairy foods such as yoghurt, ricotta and cottage cheese are higher in protein and lower in fat than their harder/creamier counterparts such as hard cheeses, soft French style cheeses and cream. These can easily be used in vegetarian dishes and add lots of flavour.


Legumes are an excellent inclusion as they provide protein, some iron and lots of fibre which is important for a healthy gut microbiome (one of the reasons why a vegetarian diet could benefit adolescents is, if done properly, it can really encourage a good population of gut microflora which are important in maintaining good mental health). Legumes are peas, beans and lentils. There are lots of types to experiment with. Green, brown, red, puy lentils…chick peas, garden peas, dried peas (for use in soups or dhal)…red kidney beans, borlotti beans, butter beans, black beans, even baked beans! Make these into burger patties, curries, chilli, add to salads, make hummus or bean dips. Lots of options.

Tofu, tempeh and other soy products

Soy beans can be made into all kinds of vegetarian foods which are very versatile. Tofu and tempeh tend to be bland but they take on the flavour of marinades very well so are excellent in stir fries and curries. Soy products are unique in that they contain all the essential amino acids that our bodies need, which is unusual in plant protein foods. Usually one or more amino acids is missing which makes it important to eat a variety of plant protein sources, or to include dairy and eggs.

Other plant foods

Many, many plant foods contain some protein, it just may not be that high. Whole grains such as oats, wholemeal bread or quinoa all contain some protein, as do chia seeds. Nuts and seeds are a good source of protein for vegetarians and are also high in fibre. They can be high in fat however so if too much weight gain is an issue then don’t eat too many! Most teenagers on a healthy vegetarian diet who are also reasonable physically active should not need to worry about excessive energy intake (calories).

Discretionary Foods

These are basically the foods which we don’t need (but still might find tempting)! Lollies, desserts, cakes, biscuits, chips, chocolate, ice cream, soft drinks and alcohol are all completely unnecessary in a balanced diet. Even vegetarians will have negative impacts on their health and may struggle to maintain a healthy weight if they make a habit of eating and drinking these every day. They offer very little protein and are usually composed of mostly sugar, fat and salt!

In Summary

Eat as wide a variety of vegetarian protein foods as you can throughout the day and the week. If you are engaged in vigorous sport regularly or trying to build muscle you will need more than the recommended amounts.

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