Q. Our 14-year-old son came home from school and announced he is now a vegetarian. This decision surprised us, because he’s never liked vegetables. Why do you think a hamburger-loving, vegetable-hating kid would suddenly decide to become a vegetarian? What can a vegetarian teenager eat? Did I mention that my son is overweight? Do you think he will lose weight on a vegetarian diet? How can I be sure he gets all the nutrients he needs?

A. You ask why kids become vegetarians. I found the articles on the Internet providing only the following three reasons:

1) They are raised vegetarian by vegetarian parents, 2) they are morally opposed to harming animals or 3) they don’t like the taste of meat. In addition, I suspect that some kids become vegetarian because their best friends are vegetarian. Also, it seems possible to me that a few kids may choose to be vegetarian to be different and/or to get special attention.

What can a child eat if he is vegetarian? It depends on the type of vegetarian he decides to become. The term “vegetarian” is broad and includes the following types:

  • Vegan—Eats only food derived from plants. No animal products at all.
  • Ovo-vegetarian—Eats eggs, but not dairy products, meat, seafood or poultry.
  • Lacto-vegetarian—Eats dairy products such as cheese and milk, but not eggs, meat, seafood or poultry.

Semi-vegetarian–Eats poultry and/or seafood and possibly eggs and dairy products, but not red meat such as beef or pork.You’ll want to clarify with your son what he intends to eat and not eat on his vegetarian diet. To be sure your son gets enough protein, you will want to serve him foods like yogurt, beans and corn, quinoa, tofu and peanut butter on wheat bread. If he doesn’t like yogurt, you can put it in a fruit smoothie. If he doesn’t like beans and corn on his plate, try refried beans and cheese (optional if  he eats cheese) on a corn tortilla.

Keep in mind that when you combine legumes (a category that includes beans, lentils and peanuts) with grains (such as wheat, rice or corn) you have a complete protein. Seeds such as quinoa and amaranth are also high in protein. Vegetables like cooked spinach or kale contain protein, as well.  Research protein for vegans and you will see a number of other options. To support their growth and development, children who are vegetarian need dietary sources of calcium and vitamin B12, iron, omega 3 fatty acids and iodine. Have your son research these needs and the recommended sources for them, and discuss his findings with him, as well as how he intends to meet his dietary needs.

You ask if he will lose weight on a vegetarian diet. It’s possible he will lose weight, if he chooses to eat mainly vegetables. On the other hand, he could gain weight being what I call a “carboholic”—getting his calories from large servings of mostly sweets and simple carbohydrates such as bread, biscuits, pastries, cheese pizza, mac and cheese, ice cream, desserts, etc. A person could call themselves a vegetarian and seldom or never touch a vegetable.

Teach him to cook if he doesn’t know how already. With your guidance, he can take the major responsibility for his special diet.

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

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