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Mom, I Want To Be a Vegetarian!

What if your teenager tells you that she wants to be a vegetarian? You may be unfamiliar with the vegetarian diet and concerned that she will not get enough nutrition. Be assured, your child can eat a vegetarian diet and still get enough nutrients.

It is important that your teen feels that you are taking the time to hear her reasons and that you will support the decision. Ask your child any questions you have and listen to the answers. There are many types of vegetarian diets, so clarify what type of vegetarian lifestyle she wants to adopt.

A vegan abstains from all animal products including eggs and dairy while an ovo-lacto vegetarian eats eggs and dairy, but no meat. Other teens may want to simply cut out red meat from their diet.

As you discuss your teen’s plans, you could suggest a gradual approach — first giving up red meat, then chicken, and eventually fish. This gradual method gives parents time to become used to preparing vegetarian meals and to learn about proper nutrition to support the diet.

How To Get Enough Nutrition

4 Factors To Monitor

Philadelphia dietitian Althea Zanecosky suggests parents and vegetarian teens monitor these four diet components.

1. Protein. Make sure your teen gets 45-60 grams per day. That translates to 3 servings of peanut butter (12g), 2 eggs (14g), and protein bars or soy products.

2. Calories. Most teens are still growing and need 2,200 to 2,800 calories per day. Keep a running log of food intake using calorie values. (For a chart of calorie values, visit www.usda.gov, then search and download the PDF file Nutritive Values of Food.)

3. Iron. Teen girls need 18 mg per day and boys need 10 mg. Athletes need even more. Choose iron-fortified foods, which you can identify from nutrition labels, or talk with your physician about a supplement.

4. Calcium. Girls need 3 servings of milk or soy per day. Calcium in plant sources is not well absorbed and does not contain Vitamin D, a necessary nutrient for calcium absorption.

Elizabeth Somer, dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness (Harlequin, $16.95), says that vegetarian teenagers need to make sure that they get 5 servings of whole grains each day, 3 servings of milk or soy, 8 servings of colorful fruit or veggies and 2 servings of legumes.

Sit down with your teen to brainstorm ways to make sure that he gets enough nutrients. One approach is for your teen to keep a food journal. Together, you can monitor his food intake and determine if he needs to add protein to his diet. Work together to determine substitutions that he can make in his diet while maintaining the vegetarian lifestyle.

A common concern for teenage girls who have begun menstruating and are vegetarian is getting enough iron. “Low iron comprises your ability to think and makes you more tired,” says Somer. Your daughter’s doctor can run an iron test and talk about iron supplements if her iron is low. If vegetarian teens participate in sports, they need to eat extra protein when they are burning extra calories during the season, for example, by eating protein bars and nuts.

Healthy Family Meals

For family dinners, you can prepare meat and meatless options. For example, if you’re making lasagna, you can prepare a small portion that does not include meat. When you grill hamburgers, you can cook a vegetarian burger along with the beef. If you’re making chicken quesadillas, you can substitute black beans for the poultry.

Add more beans to chili or serve with lowfat cheese for ovo-lacto vegetarians,” suggests Philadelphia dietitian Althea Zanecosky. “Serve salads where adding lowfat cheese or beans can provide protein options.”

Some parents encourage their teen to cook a vegetarian meal for the family once a week. This practice helps your teen develop cooking skills and have a repertoire of vegetarian recipes for later in life.

Somer reminds parents to make sure that their teens do not simply remove the meat from their diet and replace it with junk food. Keeping junk food out of the house is good for all family members. For snacks, you can stock protein rich foods such as hummus, organic nuts, peanut butter and sunflower seeds.

Make a plan with your teenager for meals that she will eat outside of the house. Determine the best way to get enough nutrients from school lunches. If the school cafeteria doesn’t provide adequate vegetarian options, that could mean packing a lunch. Choose restaurants with vegetarian options or bring along a protein for your teen to eat along with a meatless side dish.

It takes work, but “kids can do fine on a vegetarian diet and can get enough nutrients,” assures Somer.

Jennifer Gregory is a freelance writer.

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