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Why Teens Shouldn't Be Vegetarians

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Guest blogger JJ Virgin: Not too long ago, I wrote about why parents shouldn't pick on picky eaters. However, there's one type of picky eater that I'm particularly concerned about: vegetarians. Many kids make the decision to give up meat independently of their parents, due to concerns about their weight, an interest in animal rights or the influence of vegetarian celebrities. In fact, vegetarianism is gaining in popularity among young people: A 2005 Harris Interactive study found that 3 percent of Americans between 8 and 18 were vegetarians. That may not sound like a lot, but in a previous poll, that figure was 1 percent.

Teenage girl eating carrots
While I encourage my clients to eat plenty of non-starchy fruits and vegetables (after all, there are loads of disease-fighting, health-enhancing nutrients in these foods), I don't condone a completely vegetarian lifestyle -- especially for growing kids and teens. The trouble is that even if you're eating from the rainbow and getting plenty of protein from sources like beans and eggs (which many younger vegetarians don't, since they tend to eat lots of carbs and fake meat products), there are still important nutrients missing. 

As my friend and colleague Jonny Bowden points out, vitamin B12 is conspicuously lacking from a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. You simply can't get it from any fruits, vegetables or other mainstays of a vegetarian lifestyle. Those who don't get enough vitamin B12 are at a greater risk for anemia, and they may suffer from heart palpitations and chest pain. 

Furthermore, many of the studies that found that meat-eating is bad for your health were based on meat eaters who consumed factory-farmed meat and few fruits or vegetables. Of course your health will suffer if you try to survive on deli meats and other processed foods
My recommendation? Choose grass-fed meat and fill your plate with fresh, non-starchy vegetables like Brussels sprouts, asparagus and eggplant. Top that off with some fresh berries for dessert. 

By eating a variety of clean, unprocessed foods, you and your family will be much more likely to get the nutrients you need than if you stick to a strictly vegetarian diet. 

Celebrity nutrition and fitness expert JJ Virgin is a the author of "Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy" and the costar of TLC's "Freaky Eaters" reality series. Visit her at www.jjvirgin.com to grab her free audio:  "7 Steps to Break Your 'Freaky' Food Habits Fast & Forever."


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40 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jamie J September 13, 2010, 5:43 AM

What?!!! That’s very misleading… how can you claim to be a nutrition expert when you don’t know that B12 is found in eggs, milk and other dairy products, all of which are mainstays of vegetarian diets?

Alicia September 13, 2010, 5:55 AM

Such a terrible article. The American Dietetic Association, the leading group of nutritionists in the world, says that vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, are appropriate for all age groups, including pregnancy, infancy, childhood and old age.

Besides, any so-called nutritionist who uses the word “carb” as if it has any real meaning is a quack.

Gilligan Porter September 13, 2010, 6:12 AM

I agree with both Jamie J and Alicia totally! This article really isn’t helpful and is misleading also. As adults we are responsible for ensuring our dependents get a healthy balanced diet, regardless of what they eat, it can be totally be achieved whether you are a veggie or a vegan. As a long-term vegan I’m more than ok, none of limbs have fallen off, I can even do all of the same things other people can!!! I just choose not to use my body as a graveyard for animal corpses and I applaud others for being compassionate enough to do so also. I just hope the majority of people are not put off going veggie by this article and go onto approach organisations who actually know what they are talking about!!!!

Not a Veg September 13, 2010, 6:14 AM

If your child decides to become a vegetarian and you want to support them consult your pediatrician.

Make sure that they are eating cereal and soy milk that are fortified with B12. (If they are vegan double check, some soy milk is processed in dairy facilities.) Some B12 can be gained from mushrooms as well. Know what is and isn’t in the food they are eating and get them a good multi-vitamin. Skip the fake meats, they don’t add much.

If you can, use this as a teaching moment to encourage them to grow a small veggie garden. If they grow heirloom veggies they’ll get worlds more nutrition than the tasteless junk mass grown for the market.

You can also use this to spend more time with your teen. Have fun working out new recipes so that their food isn’t bland. You can make main meals that are good for them and add meat separately for the “carnivores” (lol) so that everyone is eating healthy.

KS September 13, 2010, 10:10 AM

So since you don’t condone teenagers being vegetarians you are going to hand out misinformation. Which even if this were true a simple regiment of daily dietary supplements would more than compensate for any lack of nutrition not being taken in from the diet. Thanks for trying to force your opinion with half truths and misinformation though.

Mckenzie September 13, 2010, 8:45 PM

I don’t know how a teenager could even be a vegetarian! When I was that age I wanted protein not fats. If teens have the willpower go for it. But it seems they would lean to bad starches and lipids to make up for the missing factor of protein!

Nancy September 13, 2010, 10:32 PM

Guest Blogger JJ Virgin needs to get educated on the subject before she writes and publishes an article! This article is filled with false and misleading information. I’m very disappointed in your website for allowing this inaccurate information to be included in your website. B-12 is not lacking from a regular vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet is good for you! It’s true that some teens and adults do not eat healthy diets, but it probably comes from lack of education, fast food eating, or laziness, not a vegetarian diet. Next time, write an article you know something about!

Elle September 14, 2010, 5:42 AM

Wow! I never thought I would take an article so personally. I do not agree with your insertion. In fact, several of my friends and I starting living a vegetarian lifestyle when we were in high school. All of us are now almost 30y/o and extremely healthy. We keep our regular doctors checkups and have never suffered from anemia, a lack of iron, or a lack of B-12. I think that this article would be better written if it was approached differently and outlined how a teen can be a healthy vegetarian and get the nutrients needed without meat. http://cleverlychanging.com/?p=460

Gayle September 14, 2010, 8:20 AM

This is simply contrary to fact. The scientific information about the benefits of a vegan diet and the hazards of a meat and dairy diet are well known in the medical and scientific community. And The American Dietetic Association heartily recommends a vegetarian diet. Here’s what they say at their website:

“Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits…and have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.”

Dr. Frank Oski, former director of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University said, “There is no reason to drink cow’s milk at any time in your life. It was designed for calves, it was not designed for humans, and we should all stop drinking it today, this afternoon.”

Dr. Spock agreed, saying, “[T]here was a time when cow’s milk was considered very desirable. But research, along with clinical experience, has forced doctors and nutritionists to rethink this recommendation.”

Anyone who says that a vegan/vegetarian diet is deficient is just ignorant of the science.

Seymour Eliot September 15, 2010, 6:19 PM

And what is your suggestion for the ethical aspect of it? Teens should be ignorant? They should be heartless? They should act immorally if it’s for their own selfish benefit?

And what if pure vegetarian (= no animal products) kids lack an essential nutriment? Meat-fed kids lack TONS of nutriments (calcium, iodine, vitamin C, vitamin E, fiber, folate, magnesium, source: USDA. Food and Nutrient Intakes by Individuals in the United States, by Region, 1994-96.) and absorb more protein and cholesterol than what they need, which result in health issues a lot more severe than “chest pain”, such as diabetes, heart problems, obesity, osteoporosis (later in life obv), attention deficits, asthma, autism, etc.

Besides, vegan friendly B12 (synthesized from bacteria and whatnot) supplements are available in any health store, so “vegetarians” are not those who lack it, “uninformed people” are. If vegan education was widespread, things like this wouldn’t happen. The solution isn’t to make people go back to contributing to the murder and slavery industry, it is to educate them on nutrition.

(ps. don’t confound vegetarian diet (100% non animal) and ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet, veganism not being a diet, but a vow to be compassionate, therefore to adopt a pure vegetarian (no animal products) diet, among other things)

TheVeganMom.com September 20, 2010, 8:18 AM

Yikes!! I’m not here to throw stones, but please understand that well planned Vegetarian & Vegan diets have been scientifically proven to benefit human health by reducing the risk of many diseases (including some types of cancer) as well as helping to maintain healthy body weight & adding years to our life!! Animal studies (I hate to even mention animal testing, but it does add value to my point) has shown that mice on animal protein diets got the most cancer, and mice with cancer were able to reverse the disease by eating a plant based diet.
Please refer to The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell.
We need to remember that all of the nutrients we get from “meat”, originally came from the plants consumed by the animal. Vegans & Vegetarian simply cut out the middle man. As for B12, Vegetarians do get this bacteria from eggs & dairy. Vegans must get it from fortified foods or supplements. I do agree that if teens are only eating “processed junk”, they are not on a good nutritional path. But if they are consuming a “well planned” plant based diet, they are most definitely on their way to a life filled with optimum health & longevity!

Corrine September 20, 2010, 8:36 AM

This is one of the most irresponsible articles I’ve ever read. Shame on you. That is all.

MC September 20, 2010, 9:05 AM

There is so much misinformation in this article, it’s hard to know where to start. Do you even no where B12 comes from? I don’t mean to be unkind, but any author publishing online has a responsibility for a reasonable amount of accuracy. This article is, at best, a regurgitation of nutritional myths. Floating misinformation as fact in this way is reckless and dangerous. I would refer the author, and all readers, to educate themselves with scientific fact from sources that know what they’re talking about - like The American Dietetic Association (ADA), and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

Here’s a direct quote from The American Dietetic Association on their position on vegetarian diets: such diets, if well-planned, are healthful and nutritious for adults, infants, children and adolescents and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

Better yet, please read T. Colin Campbell’s, The China Study, and get back to us.

Lauren September 20, 2010, 10:04 AM

This article contradicts the stance of the ADA, and many many other accomplished dietitians, nutritionists, doctors and associations. B12 is in many foods a vegetarian can eat, and can easily be supplemented for vegans. A vegan diet encourages a broader palate filled with fresh fruits and veggies. If your teenager isn’t getting them, encourage them to eat a broader variety of healthful foods, not hormone laden animal products. Even organic grass-fed beef still get antibiotics, and have a hormone rush before slaughter that stays in your meat. Please research more before forcing your teen to go against their own morality, especially when meat is so unhealthy.

Nathalie September 22, 2010, 4:54 PM

I decided to stop eating animals at age 13, and was lucky to have supportive parents who helped me make good eating choices. Instead of discouraging young people who are thinking critically about their impact on the world (and their health!), I suggest doing your research and helping teens live out their convictions responsibly.

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