TEEN DOC: Your Teen Gone Veggie?

by Dr. Ann Engelland

Ann Engelland(December 16, 2003) Has your pre-teen or teenager decided to become vegetarian? Are you alarmed? Worried? Informed?

First of all, RELAX. Take the time to understand what your child has in fact decided to do. Often the decision to become a vegetarian is motivated by very positive issues—sensitivity toward animals, interest in better health, spiritual experimentation, or concern for the environment—all good things for teens to think about and explore.

Your child will be fine. He or she will however need some guidance and support, not to mention a trip or two to the health food store with you.

There are a few basic rules for you and your teen to remember:

  • You will need to study and learn. The more strictly your child sticks to a vegetarian diet, the more you'll need to know.

  • Try new things and go for variety. Remember, becoming a vegetarian is making a change in eating, not just dropping meat or animal products.

  • Don’t substitute junk for meat. Again, the more strict a vegetarian, the more you will need to experiment.
What is a vegetarian anyway?

Strictly speaking, “vegetarian” is not a correct term, and there are many approaches to vegetarianism. Some people drop red meat, but eat chicken or fish. Others eat no chicken, fish or seafood but do consume eggs and milk along with grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Still others eat dairy but not eggs. A strict vegetarian or vegan excludes all foods of animal origin, including honey.

Almost any effort to decrease animal products in the diet has the potential to promote a healthier lifestyle, so I would encourage your kid’s efforts, even if they do not fit neatly into a category, seem inconsistent philosophically, or are intermittent or short-lived.

Are there any potential problems with trying out vegetarian diets?

Substituting junk: Kids need to know that a diet of soda, cheese pizza, fries and ice creams will not promote health. Again, what replaces animal protein is the most important part of learning to be a healthy vegetarian.

Calories: Because meats tend to contribute significantly to total daily caloric intake, vegetarian diets can sometimes be deficient for active teens. When this happen--and they get hungry--they may compensate with more “junk” food.

Calcium and Vitamin D: Even meat-eating teens tend not to get enough calcium in their diets. This is especially important for girls who need 1200-1500 mg of calcium per day. If teens are avoiding milk and dairy products, the best bet is for them to drink calcium-fortified orange juice or to take calcium in tablet form. Tums are probably the cheapest and most convenient and now come in fun tropical, berry, and mint flavors.

Iron: Meat, especially red meat is the most easily digested source of iron, but not the only one. Eggs, cereals and green leafy veggies have iron. It’s probably a good idea, especially for girls, who lose blood monthly and are at risk for anemia, to have their blood checked periodically if they are limiting iron sources in their diets. Again, supplemental iron is easy to take and inexpensive.

Vitamin B12 and Zinc: It used to be believed that these nutrients were not present in vegetarian diets, but smart vegetarians who eat a lot of whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts, and green leafy veggies can get enough.

Protein: Getting enough protein is only a problem with strict vegans, but there are numerous sources and forms of soy protein that can be eaten straight or incorporated into family recipes.

How can you be helpful to your child?

DO

Get informed
Try new foods yourself
Offer to go to the health food store together
Make one vegetarian meal a week for the whole family
Try an ethnic restaurant together


DON'T

Lecture your kid
Worry
Sneak meat into the “veggie” lasagna

It's not hard to be a vegetarian in the Larchmont area. There's a variety of local restaurants with vegetarian selections on their menus:

Hunan Larchmont (Chinese) has many vegetarian choices including bean curd in sauce—(that’s Tofu), broccoli with mushrooms, cold noodles with sesame sauce, and egg drop soup.

Just Meze (Turkish) has veggie soups, many dishes with eggplant, humus, or chick peas, interesting salads, and a fresh veggie casserole in tomato sauce.

At Bangkok (Thai), try the sauteed mixed veggies, stir fry, rice and noodle dishes, or many seafood options for those who eat fish and seafood,

Abis (Japanese) has vegetable tempura, noodles with veggies, Yu-dofu (bean curd with dipping sauce) and salads.

And of course the Nautilus Diner has Greek salad—hold the anchovies. McDonald’s has salads. Esy’s has all manner of veggie entrees, soups and salads, and there are always bagels and cream cheese. When you think of it, almost every restaurant has some vegetarian option.

References and helpful resources:

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy:The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. Walter C. Willett, M.D. (Simon and Schuster Source, 2001)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition. Joy Bauer (Alpha Books, 2002)

The Vegetarian Times Cookbook. Editors of Vegetarian Times & MacMillan Publishing Editors (John Wiley & Sons, 1984)

The Vegetarian Resource Group at http://www.vrg.org Also:
http://www.fastfoodfacts.com
http://www.eatright.org
http://www.fitteen.com, exercise and nutrition site for teens


Dr. Ann L. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to
Adolescent Primary Care. 914 698-5544

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