Unpacking the tip of the food pyramid
July 19, 2019

Teens and Vegetarianism by Kelly Francis, Registered Dietitian

While religious fasting with the abstinence of meat is not a new thing, it is becoming popular for teens to experiment with vegetarianism or veganism. Any teen following a diet without a daily intake of meat, chicken or fish, requires parental support in the nutrition department.

Whether abstaining from meat for religious or environmental reasons, following a vegetarian diet, even if only for part of the week, will make meeting nutrition requirements more difficult. Deficiencies can result from a nutritionally incomplete diet and therefore vegetarian meals need to be planned well.

While a diet based on whole plant foods is strongly recommended for the well-studied health benefits, animal foods make a vital nutrient contribution to the human diet in the form of protein, iron, vitamin B12 and other micronutrients.

Plant foods do contain protein but only animal protein sources can be considered complete proteins in that they contain all 9 essential amino acids for human tissue synthesis and repair. The term ‘essential’ implies that these 9 amino acids cannot be made by the body and therefore need to be consumed in the diet. To achieve all 9 amino acids from an all plant or vegan meal, a combination of a variety of plant foods needs to be eaten.

For this reason a healthy, nutrient complete, vegan or vegetarian diet requires planning and effort. Meat cannot simply be removed from meals or replaced by a single vegetable. Legumes and soya are an important part of a vegetarian diet.

While dairy is a source of complete protein, a whole cup of milk only contains the same amount of protein an as a matchbox size of meat. Full cream milk and cheese are high in saturated fat while flavoured dairy is high in sugar. Vegan dairy alternatives, with the exception of soy milk, fall short in the protein department as a substitute for cow’s milk.

Optimal growth and development require an adequate protein intake for age and physical activity level. Building healthy muscles during teen age and young adult years is important for long term health and quality of life. As muscle mass declines with age, by 8 – 10 % per decade after the age of 40 years, having strong, healthy muscles prior to this decline is beneficial. A combination of muscle use and protein intake are responsible for muscle synthesis and the strengthening of muscles for enhanced performance and endurance.

Dietary protein intake should therefore be an important consideration when planning vegetarian and vegan meals. All carbohydrate or all vegetable meals are unlikely to contain sufficient protein to make up for the lack of meat, chicken or fish. Encouraging teens wishing to adopt vegetarianism to include dairy, eggs and perhaps even fish, is highly recommended.

However, if a teen is not willing to do so, the inclusion of soya, dried beans, peas and lentils should be non-negotiable. These foods are often not favoured by teens and or many adults but there is no room for compromise in this area. Starting with soups and dips made with these ingredients may help.

In addition to protein, meat, chicken and fish are excellent sources of iron and vitamin B12 (also essential through diet). A deficiency in either of these two micronutrients can lead to irreversible side effects but to start, tiredness, weakness, poor focus, shortness of breath and mood changes are the initial symptoms of deficiency. These symptoms will reduce performance in the classroom and on the sports field and must be prevented through adequate dietary planning, testing and supplementation if required.

If done well, a vegetarian diet can support optimal functioning and health but it is also very important to note that some teens adopt a vegetarian diet an attempt to avoid eating, especially when in social setting. This food avoidance mechanism is a sign of disordered eating and should be monitored closely. When done for the right reasons, a teen will happily eat adequately from plant based food sources and be prepared for all social situations involving food.

At the end of the day, no child should be fully in charge of their diet, they need help to consume a nutritionally complete diet.

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