Q: Our 14-year-old has been following a vegetarian diet for a year and would like to convert to a vegan diet. Is this safe for a girl her age? Should she take any vitamin supplements?
A vegetarian diet centers on plants as the main food source. There are several kinds of vegetarian diets. The most common ones are described below.
• Partial vegetarian: avoids only red meat.
• Ovo-lacto-vegetarian: avoids meat, seafood and poultry, but does consume milk products and eggs.
• Vegan: avoids all foods that contain animal products.
In many ways, vegetarian diets are healthy because they tend to be lower in fat and higher in fiber than the traditional American diet. However, the more restrictive the diet, the more prone a child will be to vitamin deficiencies, notably vitamins B-12, calcium, vitamin D, protein, iron and zinc.
Families who follow a vegetarian diet, particularly those with young children, should visit a nutritionist for guidance. Taking a daily multivitamin with iron can provide an extra safeguard. Strict vegans should also consider calcium and vitamin D supplements.
In this particular instance, I would have a discussion with your daughter about why she has chosen a vegetarian diet and how she plans to get the nutrients she needs. Adolescents often do not understand the complexity of following a vegetarian diet and the importance of including a variety of foods, including green leafy vegetables and legumes, in their diets.
Sometimes a vegetarian diet can be a way for an adolescent to mask an underlying eating disorder. For this reason, its important to watch for weight loss or calorie restriction. Children and adolescents who are following a vegetarian diet should be seen at least annually by their health care provider to monitor their nutritional status.