Will my teenager be healthy if they go vegetarian?

Dietitian at Bupa UK
04 September 2018

In the UK, more and more people are embracing a meat-free lifestyle. It’s fair to say it’s getting increasingly fashionable as well, with celebs such as Jared Leto, Liam Hemsworth and Ariana Grande being vocal about their vegetarianism (or in some cases veganism). This could be one reason why teenagers are no exception to the veggie trend. A major national survey recently reported that meat consumption among 11- to 18-year-olds has fallen steadily over the last decade.

If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may find that they’re thinking about going meat-free, or they might already be a practising vegetarian. It’s natural to be concerned about your children’s health, so a big change in diet like this might feel like cause for alarm.

Image of teenagers eating outdoors

The good news is it’s very easy to continue eating a healthy, balanced diet without meat or fish. Here I’ll explain how key nutrients from meat can be found in other foods, and how you could incorporate your teenager’s eating habits into your meal plans.

Replacing nutrients found in meat

Protein

People tend to assume that a vegetarian diet will lack some key nutrients, especially protein. This could be a concern, as protein is essential to grow and repair tissues in your body, as well as being a source of energy. It’s certainly true that meat and fish are great sources of protein, but that’s not to say they’re the only ones. There are plenty of non-meat sources of protein, including:

  • eggs
  • milk and dairy products
  • beans
  • pulses
  • nuts
  • cereals and cereal products

None of these are quite as densely packed with protein as, say, a piece of chicken. So try to make sure your teenager is having some protein with every meal, to ensure they’re getting enough overall.

Protein is made up of ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. There are lots of different amino acids and we rely on all of them. Some are created by the body, but some must be supplied by the protein in the diet. These are known as ‘essential’ amino acids. Animal products, including meat, but also dairy and eggs, contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant-based products contain only a few. So it’s important for your teenager to have dairy and eggs, plus a wide range of different veg, to ensure they get all the essential amino acids they need.

Iron

Iron is key to transporting oxygen around the body and storing it in your muscles. Red meat and fish are good sources of iron, but there are plenty of other foods your teenager can eat to make sure they get enough iron in their diet, such as:

  • eggs
  • bread and flour
  • breakfast cereals – look out for those ‘fortified’ with iron
  • dark green vegetables (especially spinach, rocket and peas)
  • pulses
  • nuts
  • dried fruit, eg prunes, figs and apricots
  • yeast extract, eg Marmite

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is key for producing red blood cells, keeping your nervous system healthy and releasing energy from food. It’s found in meat and fish, but not in plant foods. Fortunately, it’s still readily available as part of a vegetarian diet. Good sources include:

  • eggs
  • milk and dairy products
  • yeast products and fortified vegetable extracts
  • breakfast cereals (fortified)

Cutting out some unhealthy things

But it’s not just a case of thinking about replacing the nutrients found in meat. Going veggie could actually help your teenager cut back on a few less healthy foods. For example, non-lean red meats such as beef and lamb are high in saturated fat. In addition, many processed meats such as bacon and sausages are high in salt and trans fat.

There is also recent research suggesting that eating lots of red or processed meat can increase your risk of certain cancers. So many people would actually benefit from reducing their intake of these foods.

Planning meals around a vegetarian

I’m sure you’re relieved to hear that your teenager’s lifestyle change shouldn’t adversely affect their health. But you may still be wondering what to cook for them, especially if you’re a regular meat-eater yourself. So here are a few suggestions on how to keep your resident vegetarian happy when planning your meals.

Learn some veggie classics

Not everything needs meat. There are plenty of classic meat-free dishes you can try and get into your repertoire, such as:

  • vegetable stew – pack it full of beans and pulses for a protein hit
  • veggie curry – get plenty of chickpeas in there to make it hearty and satisfying
  • stuffed peppers – healthy ... and they look nice too
  • falafel – (nobody will judge you for buying these rather than making them!)
  • aubergine parmigiana – admittedly not the healthiest, but one to have as a treat every now and then!

Batch cook and freeze

Cook big batches of veggie meals and freeze them into portions to have on standby. This way, if you’re investing your energy on a meat dish one evening, your teenager can simply defrost their dinner. Compared with meat, defrosting veggie food comes with much less worry about bacteria and food poisoning.

Try out meat substitutes

These are growing in popularity (and quality!) and many supermarkets now stock a wide range of veggie versions of meat ingredients. Vegetarian sausages, ‘chicken’ pieces and mince allow you to make meat and non-meat versions of the same dish, if you don’t fancy going veggie yourself.

Avoid these common traps

It’s important to remember that a vegetarian diet isn’t healthy by default. For example, it could still be high in saturated fat, particularly if it includes a lot of cheese to boost protein intake. Also, meat substitutes, such as veggie sausages, can have fairly high salt content. It’s important to check the labels on everything you buy for the family, and stick to the recommended guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet.

Try it yourself!

You may feel you’re a sworn carnivore, but try making one or two vegetarian dinners a week and see what happens ... you might find you don’t miss meat so much after all!




Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Rachael Eden
Dietitian at Bupa UK

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