Many children and teens express an interest in becoming a vegetarian. But it’s important to understand the health benefits—and the dietary needs—of vegetarianism before diving in. Dr. Mary-Jon Ludy, associate professor and food and nutrition program coordinator for the College of Health & Human Services at Bowling Green State University, shared advice for eating well and staying healthy on a vegetarian diet.
Plan out meals
Dr. Ludy first notes that while vegetarian diets are linked to lower rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, it is entirely possible to eat a “junk food” vegetarian diet that still is not healthy. “As with all eating patterns, good planning is crucial!” she explains.
She describes a helpful rule for planning a vegetarian meal: “Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with protein.” Kids and teens who become vegetarians will have to seek out forms of protein other than meat, but it is still important to eat sources of protein like beans, cheese, eggs, nuts, hummus, lentils, seeds, tofu and yogurt.
Focus on vitamins and minerals
Many vegetarians will also need to focus on ensuring they have enough calcium, iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12 from non-meat sources. These micronutrients are important for numerous bodily functions. Dr. Ludy said that dairy foods and green vegetables are helpful sources of calcium, while eating beans or leafy greens with citrus fruits or tomatoes can provide iron and aid with iron absorption. Eggs, cereal grains and dairy are good sources of vitamin D, as is sunlight! Some cereals are also fortified with vitamin B12, but vegetarians may want to take vitamin D and B12 supplements.
Involve the family
For non-vegetarian parents and family members, it is helpful to involve your vegetarian child or teen in picking out recipes, shopping for food and cooking meals. Finding vegetarian alternatives like black bean burgers, veggie pizza toppings, stir fry with tofu and bean tacos can help, as can making vegetable-based meals with meat on the side.