Is My Vegetarian Teen Getting Enough Protein?

My 16-year-old daughter has decided to stop eating animal protein, including fish. I worry about her protein intake. I have been buying tofu, protein drinks, etc., but she seems to just want to eat pasta and veggies.

– April 4, 2002

Updated on 6/30/2005

Vegetarian eating is surprisingly popular among teenagers these days – the American Dietetic Association reports that one-third think that being a vegetarian is “in.” And, like you, many parents worry that their youngsters aren’t getting enough protein. Even though the teen years are a period of rapid growth with high nutritional needs, it is easy to get adequate protein from beans, soy nuts, seeds and soy foods. Most people in our society eat far much too much protein, and you don’t really have to worry that your daughter isn’t getting enough as long as her hair and nails are growing and her wounds heal.

However, if she won’t try protein drinks or tofu, you might suggest that she eat (in moderation) something that might be more appealing to her – peanut butter (a natural brand that isn’t crammed with hydrogenated fat) or, better yet, almond butter which has a better kind of fat. Encourage her to try some of the many available soy foods on the market – some of the soy burgers are quite tasty. I would suggest a daily supplement of 100 mcg of vitamin B12 if her diet continues to exclude soy foods and other sources of protein.

Teens also have relatively high iron requirements which can be easily met by eating a varied diet – good sources include apricots, raisins, spinach, all types of beans, breads and cereals. The iron in these foods will be better absorbed when combined with foods containing vitamin C such as citrus fruits and juices, broccoli and tomatoes. Getting adequate calcium is another concern during the teen years – but your daughter should be able to get plenty from green vegetables including collard greens, mustard greens and kale, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice and tofu processed with calcium sulfate.

If you can make your daughter understand the importance of eating a varied diet, you will have little to worry about. A varied vegetarian diet is much healthier than the average American diet and will provide your daughter with more than enough protein.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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