Dear Dr. Hanson: My 11-year-old daughter has just informed me that she’s now a vegetarian. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I am worried about her not getting the nutrients she needs because I know that she’s still growing, and I am not familiar with a vegetarian diet. Do you have any advice for me?
Dear Reader: I encourage you to be open-minded about your daughter’s choice, whether or not you agree with it, because at age 11, she certainly will need your help and guidance to ensure she is still getting a well-balanced diet (and let’s be honest at this age, if you try to steer her away from a choice, you can be pretty sure she’ll push back even harder). In keeping more of a global perspective, you can be reassured there are many healthy cultures around the world that follow a mostly vegetarian diet; in the United States individuals eat more meat than almost any country in the world.
I encourage you to talk with your daughter about the reasons behind her decision to see if you can get a basic understanding of what is prompting her to change.
It’s also a good idea to talk more with her about what she means by “vegetarian.” There are a range of diets that can be considered vegetarian, and while thinking about your daughter’s nutritional needs, it’s important to know what foods she will be avoiding.
While there are many different vitamins and minerals important to have in everyone’s diet, individuals who are limiting foods from animals need to pay particular attention to a handful of nutrients that may not be as abundant in the foods they are eating.
The first of these is protein. Protein is one of the sources of energy in the foods we eat and is an important building block for many systems in our body, including muscles. Meats are a major source of protein for many people. Fortunately there are lots of other foods that are good sources of protein.
If your daughter is including dairy products and eggs in her diet, these are high in protein. Other good foods for protein include legumes (beans), tofu, nuts and nut butters and some grains.
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Another nutrient that can be low in vegetarian diets is iron. Iron is an important building block for our red blood cells, and a diet low in iron can lead to anemia. There are many non-meat foods high in iron, including legumes, some leafy greens, prunes, and iron-fortified grains (such as many breakfast cereals).
If your daughter is going to be following more of a vegan diet (no animal products, including dairy foods and eggs), then there are a few additional nutrients you need to be aware of when eating. Calcium and vitamin D can sometimes be lacking in a vegan diet. Both nutrients are important for bone health (among other things), and it is especially important your daughter gets enough of them throughout the next few years as bones grow rapidly during the growth spurts common in the pre-teen and early teenage years.
In order to ensure she gets enough calcium and vitamin D, see if she’ll drink a milk substitute (such as soy milk or almond milk). Other foods with calcium include leafy greens, tofu and some legumes. Vitamin D can also be absorbed from sunlight, or else be found in some fortified cereals.
The last nutrient to be aware of is vitamin B12. Many people have heard of this, but aren’t exactly sure what it does. It’s important for nerve and blood cells, and is also used to make DNA. Vitamin B12 is found in foods from animals, so typically vegetarians are able to get enough of it through dairy foods and eggs; however, vegans often need to take a supplement or else eat foods fortified with B12 in order to meet their needs.
As your daughter adjusts her diet, if you aren’t certain she’s getting enough of any nutrient, it would be a good idea to start her on a daily multivitamin. Another option to consider would be having both of you meet with a dietitian to discuss her diet and brainstorm ways to help fill any gaps that may be present.
Finally, from a practical point of view, you may be wondering about the extra work of preparing food for your daughter.
She is certainly old enough to help out in the kitchen, and I encourage you to invite her to help with the cooking. Also, there are many delicious vegetarian recipes out there that would be great to serve to the whole family — who knows, your entire family might start eating less meat, and may not even miss it!