What's the concern with teens going vegetarian or vegan?
When a teen wants to go vegetarian or vegan, that can be a red flag. Anytime a teen wants to make a change in they way they're eating, it's a signal for us parents to slow down and get curious. And though being vegetarian doesn't mean someone has an eating disorder, we do know that those with eating disorders were more likely to report having been vegetarian or vegan.
What's a flexitarian?
About 10 years ago, my now 16 year old declared she wanted to be a vegetarian who ate hamburgers, bacon, ham and sausage. Naturally, Chad and I found Caroline's declaration both hilarious and smart! Our amazing child was telling us she didn’t want to eat foods she didn’t like (she’d never loved chicken or beef unless it was a hamburger). And that she wanted to continue eating foods she loved. Without knowing the term for it, she declared herself a flexitarian which is how I advise parents and their tweens and teens to think about it today.
An important note: my use of the term flexitarian is more broad than the Merriam-Webster definition: "one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish." I define flexitarian as someone who's interested in eating more vegetarian and vegan meals while continuing to eat the foods they love.
7 Tips for when your teen says they're going vegetarian or vegan:
- Be curious if your teen expresses interest in changing the way they eat. There’s no denying plant based diets are good for our bodies and our planet. However, adolescents are prone to all or nothing thinking and that can lead to rigid behaviors around food. Ask some questions: Are they worried about their weight? Are they worried about health? These reasons are red-flags. We know that teens who diet are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder. If they answer yes to either of these, schedule to meet with an experienced, weight inclusive, non-diet registered dietitian for guidance. As we know, there's so much pressure on people of all ages from diet-culture. What messages are they getting at school, from coaches, from friends and family? Again, be curious about why they want to stop eating meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs? What are they reading? What are they hearing in school? Who do they follow on social media?
- Is it their love of the environment or animals or both? Encourage them to find some non-food ways to be more environmentally conscious and engage in social justice issues.
- Avoid praising or criticizing your teen who wants to go vegetarian or vegan. Eating a certain way is neither good nor bad. For instance, a person who chooses to be vegetarian or vegan or flexitarian or "to eat clean" or eat more whole foods is not better in anyway than a person who eats meat, pork, chicken and fish in their diet.
- Offer to explore meal ideas together and then weave those meals into your current dinner rotation. Explore quick and easy ideas for vegetarian or vegan lunches they can easily make themselves. See below for links to some recipes and cookbooks.
- Avoid cooking only meals you think your teen will eat. Because they're still growing, it can be hard to meet their needs if they cut out foods they previously ate. (Yes, even after adolescents get their period, they still grow)! Make that pulled pork, or roast chicken or stir-fried beef and veggies. And sometimes make a vegetarian side - like baked beans to go with the pulled pork, or white beans and farro to go with the chicken. Serve the stir-fried beef and veggies over rice with a bowl of edamame. Your teen can eat the veggies, rice and edamame.
- Avoid allowing your teen to make themselves different meals from what the rest of the family is eating. Assure them you’ll make meals that will have enough to fill them up. Or, have them make a side like a bean dish to go with the meal. Yes, we want teens to be helping with some of the meal prep at times and making some of their own meals. However, teens have a lot going on and still need us to provide much of the structure of planning and preparing most meals. At times, they seem like adults and at times like toddlers. Teens still need us to provide some structure around meals.
- Encourage them to think of themselves as flexitarian. We know teens think rigidly at times which can leave them feeling like they MUST eat only X or Y. Being flexitarian allows them to feel free to eat a burger when that’s what sounds good to them. Or a grilled cheese or a bowl of ice cream or the bacon that smells SO good or the steamed pork buns they’ve always loved. I’ll say it again: teens are still growing and it can be hard to meet their needs if they cut out foods they previously ate and enjoyed.
Vegetarian recipes and a few cookbooks
Check out these simple vegetarian recipes on our site:
- Zucchini Fritters
- Easy Weeknight Tofu Veggie Stir Fry
- A 15 Minute Recipe for Black Beans: 7 Different Ways
- Anna's Easy Black Beans and Rice
- 2 Simple Vegetarian Meal Ideas in the post
- Easy Baked Beans
- Crisp Veggie Salad
Links to some of my favorite cookbooks and blogs that are either completely vegetarian or include some simple and tasty vegetarian recipes.
- Dinner by Melissa Clark
- Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
- Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi
- How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
- The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
- World Vegetarian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey
What's your favorite vegetarian or vegan recipe? Leave a reply below!
Alexandra Caspero MA, RD
As a plant-based dietitian who has also worked with eating disorder clients for the past decade, I find this advice a little simplistic and conflating tradition weight loss dieting with veganism and vegetarianism. That is true some of the time, but certainly not all of the time. It's unfortunate that so much of the eating disorder community is stuck in thinking that veganism means rice and vegetables, instead of realizing how easy and abundant a meat-free (or completely animal-free diet) is these days. I've heard form so many clients over the years who felt abandoned by their previous ED dietitians who forced them to eat foods that didn't align with their beliefs, or dismissed their desire to choose vegan options of challenge foods (soy ice cream, Impossible burgers, etc.) I agree with the first point about being curious; with any diet change it's good practice to ask questions, be responsive and consider our child's point of view. The research does show that choosing plant-based diets for weight loss or health reasons have a higher association with eating disorders, but those who choose them for ethical or environmental reasons don't. The advice to tell your teenager to do other things to help the cause they believe in or that you won't be changing the family's diet doesn't align with many of the principles behind responsive feeding, especially for teenagers who are capable of cooking most of their meals themselves. The Academy's position paper on plant-based diets states that these diets are healthful for all stages of the lifecycle, including periods of growth. While there may be nutrients of concern, that's true for any diet. Especially with the multitude of plant-based/vegan products on the market today; almost anything can be made into an animal-free meal if that's what someone wants. Over 20 years ago I told my mom I wanted to stop eating meat, and I'm so thankful that she responded with curiosity instead of dismissal. While I did eat meat off and on for 5 years after that, it was my choice to discover what aligned with my needs and my beliefs-- and settle into what dietary pattern fit with that. I'm thankful my parents choose to respond with compassion and curiosity.
Thank you for your comment. And thank you for reading our blog and highlighting the nuances of this very important topic.