Teenagers have high nutritional needs from ages 13 to 19 because of rapid growth and change.
More and more teenagers are choosing to be vegetarian, and often face pressure from people concerned for their health. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is variety. Your parents would be concerned if you only ate hamburgers, and should also be concerned if you only eat potato chips and salad.
The nutrients you will probably be asked about the most are protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
Energy to keep you going
Energy is vitally important for growth and activity. Lack of energy may cause your body to become too thin or stunted. Virtually all foods contain energy (measured in kilojoules or sometimes calories) but fruit, vegetables and some cereals have high fibre/water contents that make you feel “full” before you have enough energy.
Adjust the diet to include more energy-dense foods such as legumes, nuts, oils eg peanut butter or margarine. Canola, olive, avocado and peanut oils contain greater proportions of monounsaturated fat, which tend to reduce cholesterol levels in your body. Of course fibre and water are important too!
Nutrients for growth
Vegetarian teens eating varied diets rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to support growth.
Beans, breads, cereals, nuts, peanut butter, tofu and soy milk are some foods that are especially good sources of protein, as are cows milk and low fat cheese. Only fruits, fats and alcohol do not provide much protein, so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. A mixture of proteins eaten throughout the day will provide enough essential amino acids.
Other important nutrients
Calcium is used to build bones, especially during adolescence. Bone density is laid down in adolescence and young adulthood, so it is important to include three or more good sources of calcium in your diet every day. Research also shows that bone density is helped by weight bearing exercise, particularly in adolescence.
Iron requirements of teenagers are relatively high. By eating a varied diet, a vegetarian can meet his or her iron needs, while avoiding the excess fat and cholesterol found in red meats such as beef or pork. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, include a food that contains vitamin C. Fresh citrus juices and green salads are all good sources of vitamin C.
Teenage vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy foods will obtain sufficient vitamin B12 in their diet. Vegans who do not eat dairy products or eggs should include cereals and fortified soymilk and rice milk, and consider including B12 vitamin supplements in their diet.
Healthy steps to your ideal weight
Many teenagers are concerned about losing or gaining weight. To lose weight, look at your diet: If it has lots of sweet or fatty foods, replace them with fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. If your diet already seems healthy, try to get more exercise – walking, running or swimming daily, for example.
If you are trying to gain weight, you will need to eat more food. Perhaps eating more often or eating foods somewhat higher in calories and lower in bulk will help.
Try to eat three or more times a day whether you are trying to gain weight or lose weight. It is hard to get all of the nutritious foods you need if you only eat one meal a day. If you feel that you cannot control your eating behaviour or if you are losing a great deal of weight, you should discuss this with your health care provider/dietitian/naturopath.
Quick foods for busy people
With the demands of school and outside activities, it may often seem there is just not enough time to eat. Here are some foods that require little or no preparation. (Check the menu of fast-food restaurants, too, some do have vegetarian-friendly burgers or snacks):
Smoothie (milk of your choice, banana or kiwi fruit, honey and perhaps egg/spirulina),
muesli bars, nuts and raisins or roast nuts, fruit in season, popcorn (if fresh there is no need for sugar!), carrot/celery/vegetable sticks with hummus, yoghurt, whole grain sandwiches, dried fruit, bean tacos or burritosâ€¦.
Considerations for vegans
The richest vegetable sources of protein are derived from legumes (especially soy products), nuts and seeds. But remember that the variety and balance in your diet is important, especially considering the temptation of junk food.