By Katie Grubiak, RDN, Nutrition Illumination and Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D.
We acknowledge that vegetarianism can offer benefits for both individuals and the environment. We also recognize that vegetarianism is embedded in some cultures and religions, and most children and teens raised in these cultures thrive.
This article does not aim to debate the ethics of vegetarianism. Instead, it aims to provide education to parents who may be unaware of some of the risks of children and teens in non-vegetarian households becoming vegetarian.
It arises fairly often and innocently. A preteen or young teen in an omnivore household declares their intention to try out vegetarianism or veganism. Parents often admire that their young person is taking a stance and demonstrating an interest in ethics, the environment, and their health. These are, after all, great values, and they make parents proud.
Motivation for and Potential Risks of Your Teen Becoming Vegetarian
It is often hard to discern the true motivation when a child or young teen requests to be vegetarian. Sometimes the request is innocent and expressed as a love of animals or in response to lurid stories about the mistreatment of animals. Sometimes, however, the true motivation is a desire to be thinner and avoid higher-fat foods. Vegetarianism can be a cloak to hide behind—an acceptable way to reduce intake of some higher-fat foods. These higher-calorie foods are often labeled “unhealthy” by the diet world. Desiring to eat “cleaner” and “healthier” can be quite a convincing mask.
Even when it is innocent, it could still cascade into a full-blown eating disorder such as anorexia. Teens in particular need a lot of energy, and it is harder to meet these needs on a vegetarian diet. When animal products have previously been part of the diet, the introduction of a restriction on them may inadvertently cause a negative energy balance. This negative energy balance might in turn trigger a dangerous eating disorder in those with genetic vulnerability. Unfortunately, many parents do not discover this until it is too late.
Parents who unwittingly support this shift may miss that their teens are afraid of animal foods and their impact on health and weight. We don’t want to unintentionally promote this fear by supporting the choice of vegetarianism. Avoidance increases fear and an emerging eating disorder can ignite in this scenario. By contrast, maintaining flexibility and exposure to a broad range of foods may maintain psychological health and keep an eating disorder from taking hold.
Keeping Your Teen an Omnivore
We think it is far safer to prevent a teen from entirely dropping meat and animal products. This is because eating disorders pose a significant risk to this age group. We recommend against letting your teen draw a rigid line in the sand.
It’s important to get a balanced and adequate diet in the sum total of everything you eat, and different culinary traditions solve this problem in different ways. Vegetarian diets get their fats, proteins, calories, etc. from a different balance of things and are complete. One risk in a child raised with an omnivorous diet is that they simply subtract essential components from their diet rather than replacing them with vegetarian analogs, and this isn’t a simple balance to get right.
Eating a healthy vegetarian diet requires more than just the elimination of animal products. It requires the conscious pairing of foods to provide the full proteins provided by animal proteins. It also may require specific supplementation of nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and essential fatty acids as well as saturated fats. Children and teens will often need guidance to do so.
If you allow your teen to define themselves as a vegetarian, this reinforces the maintenance of rigid rules about what they can and cannot eat. What happens when they find themselves at a birthday party where the cheese pizza runs out and the only option left is pepperoni? What happens when they go to a barbecue and the only proteins are hamburgers, hot dogs, or chicken wings? Will they obediently follow the rule and thus forgo eating the off-limit food, eating only crudité, and failing to meet their energy and protein needs for that meal? If they rigidly define themselves as a vegetarian, they would likely forgo a protein rather than flexibly meet their nutritional needs with one of the animal proteins.
Alternatives to Allowing Your Teen to Go Vegetarian
Children often want “to do the right thing” by being part of the solution to world problems. They often want what is “healthy” for their bodies as well as for the world and the environment. It is a parent’s responsibility to let your child know that not being vegetarian doesn’t mean they are a “bad”, “unconscious”, or “unhealthy” person.
Frequently parents want to empower their children to take a stance. But merely fostering a sense of moral superiority is not a good reason to become a vegetarian. Maintaining one’s health is also a virtue. It’s important to inform them that maintaining a diet that includes animal products can also be a healthy and responsible choice.
Talking to Your Teen
Talk to your child about their desire to be vegetarian and try to understand their motivations. Listen for reasons that may indicate a desire to restrict beyond limiting animal products. This might include concerns about their shape or weight or comparisons to peers. If you are concerned by their responses and they are not receptive to alternatives, it is wise to reach out to an eating disorder professional dietitian or therapist, or your child’s pediatrician.
You can listen compassionately to their concerns. At the same time, you can take the position that they can consider vegetarianism in the future. Maybe when they are of age—18 years old–or on their own. As well, you can let them know that you are going to continue to have the same foods they have eaten throughout their life–including some meals with meat and some without.
You can help them to express the protection of animals and appreciation of a plant-based diet. We suggest, for example, having a few meatless meals in honor of their preference each week. You can learn how to prepare vegetarian meals that are appropriately balanced and filling. This helps to model what an appropriate vegetarian meal looks like. Rotate these in a few times a week.
You can encourage a ritual or prayer of gratitude for food to acknowledge all living beings (including farm workers) who contributed to a meal. In so doing, you honor their life to sustain yours.
You can help teens advocate for livestock and how they are raised and where they roam (i.e. grass fields vs. dirt holding spaces). Have them watch a film that shows the complexities and interconnection of nature and how to take care of animals and our environment.
For a film with broader ideas about food and the environment, we suggest. The Biggest Little Farm Movie.
If You Decide to Support Your Teen’s Vegetarianism
If there are no other eating disorder red flags and you want to support your teen’s desire to become a vegetarian, we encourage you to work with a dietitian who is well-versed in eating disorders and can guide this transition. We encourage you to monitor their height and weight and check with their pediatrician to ensure they continue to gain and grow along expected trajectories.
Encourage as much flexibility within their vegetarian diet and ensure they are continuing to eat higher-fat foods and fun foods. If they attend an event at which there may not be a vegetarian option, encourage them to bring their own protein. Ensure they understand how to choose appropriate balanced and nutrient-dense meals.
Get Help For Concerns About Your Teen’s Eating
Schedule Dietary Counseling Sessions with Katie Grubiak
For parents looking for advice about children’s and teen’s eating, reach out to dietitian Katie Grubiak, RDN