family dinnerIs Your Teen Vegetarian At Risk for Health Problems?

Teen Vegetarian Nutriton Checklist:

Does your teen eat…

  1. Whole-wheat bread, nuts, vegetables, and fruits every day?
  2. Bread, rice, pasta and other grain products each day?
  3. Vegetables daily?
  4. Fruit every day?
  5. Beans and other meat alternatives each day?
  6. Do you have a difficult time maintaining a healthy weight?

(Vegans or those who do not eat any foods of animal origin can skip to #10)

  1. Milk, yogurt, or cheese daily?
  2. Eggs occasionally?
  3. Foods of plant origin that are high in calcium? (See Section 3: Calcium guideline for nondairy calcium foods.)
  4. Foods that are fortified with Vitamins B12 and D (or take a supplement that provides no more than 100% of the RDA for B12 and D)?

If you answered “no” to any item, she may be at risk for a nutritional deficiency.

Vegan Diets

Teens who attempt to practice a vegan – strictly plant — based – diet are at greater risk for deficiencies of nutrients such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and some essential fatty acids. Low zinc intake is a concern because of its role in growth. Referral to a registered dietitian is recommended.


Vegetarian diets are usually lower in calories than omnivorous diets — those that include animal products — because they provide more fiber and less fat.  Teens have greater needs for energy (calories) than adults, therefore  calorie- and nutrient-dense foods am an important component to any vegetarian diet.

Good sources of energy include dried beans and peas, nuts and nut butters, dried fruits, and whole grains and seeds (these also provide many vitamins and minerals). Added fats and dairy products (for those who use them) are also good sources.


Concerns about protein deficien- cies in the vegetarian diet arise when no meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, or dairy products are consumed. With careful planning, the protein needs of vegetarian teens may be met with consumption of a variety of plant foods. Plant foods such as le- gumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and some vegetables are rich in protein.

Concern for the protein adequacy of vegetarian diets focuses on the differences in amino acid composition between plant and animal proteins. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins; some “essential” amino acids cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from food.

Amino Acids are Essential

All animal proteins contain the necessary types and amounts of essential amino acids, and thus are some- times referred to as “complete proteins.” Plant proteins lack one or more essential amino acid — or do not contain them in the amounts needed — and so are sometimes referred to as “incomplete pro- teins.”

When animals — and humans — consume only a single plant protein, they will not grow adequately because they will not, have sufficient quantities of all the essential amino acids. An appropriate combination of plant foods can, however, produce normal growth because the amino acid deficiencies of one plant can be corrected by another. These two- plant combinations are called “complimentary” protein foods.

The most common complimentary protein pairs are grains and beans or grains and legumes.

Classic examples of complimentary meals are rice and beans or lentils, tortillas and beans, black-eyed peas and cornbread, bean or pea soup with whole grain bread, and peanut butter sandwiches. Although at one time it was thought that complimentary protein foods needed to be eaten at the same meal, recent research has shown that complimentary protein eaten in the same day can support normal growth.

Non Meat Sources of Protein

Non meat sources of complete protein include eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, and soy products. Vegans must eat more legumes or nuts, combined with whole grains and soy products, as substitutes for the protein other vegetarians get from eggs, milk, and other dairy products.

Calcium and Vitamin D

It takes more planning for vegans to get adequate calcium from their diet. Vegetarians who avoid milk and other dairy products should supplement their diet with a calcium-fortified milk alternate that is low-fat, and fortified with Vitamin D.

Some nondairy sources of calcium include tofu processed with calcium, calcium-fortified soy beverages, broccoli, sunflower seeds, nuts, legumes, calcium fortified orange juice, and fortified breakfast cereal. See Section 3 Calcium guideline for more information on dairy and nondairy sources of calcium.

Vitamin D is not a problem for vegetarians who drink milk and for those who get sunshine exposure on a regular basis (sunbathing is not necessary; about 15 minutes of minimal hand, arm and face exposure without clothing or sunscreen is adequate). What should vegans do when the sun is not visible? They should eat foods are fortified with Vitamin D such as breakfast cereals and soy beverages, or take a supplement that contains no more than 100% of the Recommended Diet Allow- ance (RDA). Larger doses of Vitamin D can be dangerous.


Most studies show that vegetarian teens have higher intakes of iron than omnivorous teens, but regardless of dietary choice, iron intake is a concern for all teens. Vegetarian adolescents should be encouraged to include iron-rich plant foods at every meal (see Section 4: Iron guideline). Plant foods contain iron, but it is not absorbed as well as the iron from animal sources.

There are ways to improve the absorption of the iron in plant foods (such as legumes, whole- wheat breads, tofu, spinach). One way is to include Vitamin C-foods (citrus fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes, for example) at every meal. Semi-vegetarians who eat small amounts of meat, poultry, or fish are getting a great source of iron that the body can readily use.


A Vitamin B12 deficiency may occur with vegetarian diets that omit all animal products. Defi- ciency of this vitamin can cause neurological problems that may be irreversible, especially in infants or young children. Vegetarian adolescents who eat no animal products must include food products fortified with Vitamin B 12 or take a vitamin supplement that includes it.

Vegans should look for cereals, soymilk products, or vegetarian burger patties that are fortified with B12. Vegan products such as seaweed, algae, spirulina, and fermented plant foods such as terapeh and miso are not good sources Of B12 because it is in a form that cannot be used by the human body.


More than two-thirds of the zinc the American diet comes from animal sources. Vegetarians who include milk, cheese, yogurt, or eggs in their diet get enough zinc.

Vegans can get zinc by eating legumes, tofu, seeds, nuts, and the germ and bran of whole grains. Be aware that these plant sources of zinc also contain substances (phytates and fiber) that make it difficult for the body to absorb the zinc contained in them.

A multi-vitamin/mineral supple- ment may be a good way for vegans to get adequate zinc. Such supplements should only contain 100% or less of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of zinc; higher doses can have harmful side effects.

Source: Parent and child Guide to Vegetarianism

Lisa Metzgar

Lisa Metzgar

Nutrition Tidbits by Lisa Metzgar, PhD
LisaMetzgar, PhD,she received her BA in Biology from UCSD, is a certified Holistic Health Practitioner, and received her Ph.D. in Holistic Nutrition.

Lisa has taught body mind retreats in San Diego, Seattle, and Australia and currently has a practice in Reno, NV where she does nutrition counseling.Lisa's passion is to educate families about a healthy lifestyle.
Lisa Metzgar MetzgarNutrition TidbitsHealth,Nutrition,Teens and ‘TweensIs Your Teen Vegetarian At Risk for Health Problems? Teen Vegetarian Nutriton Checklist: Does your teen eat... Whole-wheat bread, nuts, vegetables, and fruits every day? Bread, rice, pasta and other grain products each day? Vegetables daily? Fruit every day? Beans and other meat alternatives each day? Do you have a difficult...Parenting Advice| Family Fun Activities for Kids