Vegetarian diets for teens can be quite healthy, as long as parents help monitor the diets so the kids get the nutrients they need, new research has found.
"Parents are a bit too concerned about their teen's vegetarianism," says study author Cheryl Perry, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. "If the adults could embrace it a bit and say, 'We'll have vegetarian meals twice a week and you can help me cook,' it might take some of the perceived rebellion out of it and be healthier for the whole family."Perry and her colleagues studied 4,746 teenagers of various ethnic and racial backgrounds from 31 middle and high schools in the Minneapolis area. Of them, 262, or 6 percent, said they were vegetarian. The majority were girls.
Researchers then compared the diets of the vegetarian teens to dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The study, which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that:
- Vegetarian teens were more than twice as likely to eat less than 30 percent of their calories from fat, compared to non-vegetarians. About 65 percent also consumed less than 10 percent of their calories from saturated fat, compared to 39 percent of meat-eaters.
- Vegetarians were also more likely to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily -- 39 percent compared to 28 percent.
- Vegetarians also ate less cholesterol-laden foods, more Vitamin A, more iron and less fast food and drank less regular soda. However, they consumed more caffeine and more diet soda.
Perry's previous research found the main reason teens gave for giving up meat was to lose weight. Other common reasons included compassion for animals and the environment, not liking the taste of meat, and wanting to eat healthier.
However, weight loss isn't a good reason for starting a vegetarian diet. The researchers found no difference in the average body mass index of the vegetarians versus the non-vegetarians.
The American Dietetic Association says a vegetarian diet can be healthy for a child of any age, including infants.
"A well-managed vegetarian diet can absolutely meet the needs of growing children, including teenagers," says Sheah Rarback, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. "The issue is making sure the child is getting all the nutrients they need from non-meat sources. It all comes down to eating a variety of allowed foods, and making sure you get all the nutrients for growth."
That said, both Rarback and Perry caution that some of those teens who proclaim they are vegetarians could also be trying to hide an eating disorder.
"Saying that you're vegetarian can help mask an eating disorder and take the pressure off," Rarback said. "A teen can say, 'I don't eat this because of my beliefs.' "
In earlier research, Perry found vegetarian teens were at higher risk of unhealthy weight-control practices, such as bingeing or taking laxatives. About 8.5 percent of vegetarian teens had been told by a doctor they had an eating disorder, compared to only 3.1 percent of meat-eating teens.
What To Do
Check out the American Dietetic Association's position paper on vegetarianism, which also includes a food guide for vegetarians and meal-planning ideas. Or visit the Vegetarian Resource Group for nutrition tips for teens.