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dear joan,
My 13-year-old daughter wants to become a vegetarian. I am afraid that she is too young for this type of diet. Am I wrong? What should I do? She will eat dairy. Help!
--mom of veggie girl


dear mom of veggie girl,

It wouldn't surprise me if, as a mother, you spent a good part of your daughter's childhood pulling your hair out trying to get her to eat more veggies. Ironically, now that she's a teenager, this about-face is giving you gray hairs! Relax, a well-balanced, varied vegetarian diet with plenty of foods from all the food gorups can meet the needs of growing teens. However, you'll need some "Vegetarian 101" basics and perhaps some individualized advice. And most importantly, cooperation from your daughter.

The nutrients of most concern for all vegetarians are protein, calcium, vitamin D, protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Since your daughter is going to continue to enjoy dairy foods, calcium and vitamin D can be easier for her to get.

However, the loss of meat, fish and poultry in her diet also means the loss of sources of protein, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. For your teenager, it's important to eat enough protein to meet her growing needs. Since meat is not going to be on your daughter's menu, protein-rich meat alternatives such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh, soy burgers, nuts and legumes need to stand in for traditional sources of protein from the meat group. A peanut butter sandwich, soy-based veggie burger, or tofu spread can serve up a protein-rich lunch, while a tofu stir-fry and vegetarian chili stockpiled with beans can fit the dinner bill. It's also important that she chow down on enough calories so that the protein that she is eating isn't being used to fuel her young body, but rather to build it. Healthy snacks between meals will also be important.

Since dairy is still on the menu, three servings daily of either a cup of milk or yogurt, or one and a half ounces of natural cheese or two ounces of processed cheese will not only help her meet her calcium needs, but will add some protein and vitamin B12. Cereal and milk at breakfast, cheese on her veggie burger, and a yogurt during the day can have her meeting her daily dairy recommendation before dinner. Since her bones are still growing, she'll need another good calcium-rich source such as calcium fortified orange juice, grapefruit juice or soy milk. Greens, such as broccoli, will add some additional calcium.  

To ensure an adequate vitamin B12 intake for the day, fortified cereals, soy milk and/or a supplement will be in order. For iron and zinc, look to grains and fortified cereals, wheat germ, legumes, and soy. Dairy foods are also good sources of zinc. Eating vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, and potatoes along with her meals can help her body absorb the iron in the food. Having some OJ with her breakfast of fortified cereal and milk is an easy way for her to get a good source of all of these nutrients.

If you daughter doesn't eat fish, that you want to make sure that she is consuming enough of other sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil and soybean oil.  

To relieve your understandable apprehension about your daughter's new dietary fashion, you may want to meet with a registered dietitian (RD) so that a complete nutrition analysis of your child's diet can be made, ensuring that all of her nutritional needs are being met. You can locate an RD near you by calling the American Dietetic Association at (800) 366-1655 or visting their website at: www.eatright.org. You can also find an RD at the outpatient dietary department at your local hospital.

Also, please note that if your daughter is using this diet change for unnecessary weight loss or unhealthy eating practices, it may be a signal of an eating disorder, in which case she would need support from her pediatrician. -- December 28,1999

Updated: September 2005