Teenagers have high nutritional needs 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, especially if they are the only vegetarian in the family.
The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, as with all diets, is variety. Being a junk food vegetarian is not healthy!
The nutrients most often asked about the most are protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
Energy to keep you going
Energy (measured in kilojoules or calories) is vitally important for growth and activity. Lack of energy may cause lethargy and your body to become too thin. All foods contain energy but fruit, vegetables and some cereals have high fibre/water content, that though important, that can make you feel full before you have enough energy.
Adjust the diet to include more energy-dense foods such as legumes, nuts and oils, eg peanut butter. Choose healthy oils such as olive and avocado.
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, wholegrain breads, cereals, nuts, peanut butter, tofu and soy milk are some foods that are especially good sources of protein, as are the various milks. 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. Most plant proteins do not contain the full set of essential amino acids, but a mixture of proteins eaten throughout the day will provide them all.
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. Calcium is found in leafy green vegetable, tofu, tahini and milks, among many other sources.
Iron requirements of teenagers are relatively high. By eating a varied diet that includes iron rich foods, a vegetarian can meet his or her iron needs. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, include a food that contains vitamin C. Fruit, fresh citrus juices, brocolli, capsicum and green salads are all good sources of vitamin C. Iron rich foods include, legumes, nuts and marmite.
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 &/or yoghurt of your choice, banana or kiwi fruit. Fresh tofu or Nuzest protein powder can add a protein kick if you feel you need it. Freshly ground linseed is good for omega 3, brain and skin health.
Muesli bars, nuts and raisins or roast nuts, fruit, popcorn (if fresh there is no need for sugar!), carrot/celery/vegetable sticks with hummus, yoghurt, whole grain sandwiches, dried fruit, bean tacos or burritos.
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.