Even if you're not a vegetarian
, chances are you know someone who is. Teenagers in the United States are turning to vegetarianism at a faster rate than any other age group. In many cases, a teenager decides to become a vegetarian even though her family has no intention of joining her. If you're in that situation, you probably know that it can be a challenge to plan a balanced diet just for yourself. And you're not alone. Many teenage vegetarians do not get the full range of vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.
Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix—once you understand which nutrients are hard to get in a vegetarian diet, and how you can replace them. back to top
What's the problem with being a vegetarian?
Being a vegetarian
can be a very healthy way to eat. But it does require extra care to make sure that you're not missing out on some essential vitamins and minerals that are found mostly, or only, in animal products. These include vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and calcium. back to top
The view on vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in beef, milk, and eggs. If you don't eat meat, you may not be getting enough of this B vitamin in your diet. And if you're a vegan who doesn't eat any meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, there is no way that you can get this essential vitamin through food. Some people try to get vitamin B12 by eating miso or sea vegetables. But the form of the vitamin in those foods is not one that your body can absorb easily.
Over time, a lack of vitamin B12 can lead to a type of anemia
. It can also lead to nerve damage and problems with mood and brain function. That's not something you'd want to fool around with! If you're a vegetarian, it's probably a good idea to take a multivitamin/mineral that contains B12. back to top
Zoning in on zinc
Zinc is an essential mineral that is found mainly in meat, fish, and other animal products. Your body needs zinc for a wide range of processes, from forming new cells to sexual function to your sense of smell and taste. If you don't eat meat, chicken, or fish, you may not be getting enough zinc
in your diet to keep you healthy. And if you're a vegan who has sworn off all animal products, including eggs, it's tough to get enough zinc through diet alone. (There's some zinc in plant sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, but your body may not absorb it well.)
Lack of zinc can cause sleep problems, poor appetite, slowed growth, problems with your period
, and acne
, among other things. If you're a vegetarian, taking a multivitamin/mineral is a smart way to avoid a zinc deficiency. back to top
Pumping up on iron
Red meat and eggs are key sources of iron, but they're not the only ones. Vegetarians can beef up on this important mineral by eating iron-rich plant foods. Good sources are spinach, dried fruits, and soy burgers. You should eat these foods together with foods that are high in vitamin C
or take a multivitamin/mineral containing vitamin C). This will help your body absorb iron from foods. Cooking food in cast iron pots also helps you increase your iron intake.
If you still find that you're often tired and listless, you may want to check with your health professional about getting the iron levels in your blood tested. Depending on the results, he or she may recommend taking an iron supplement to prevent anemia
. back to top
Boning up on calcium
Milk and dairy products are a convenient source of calcium, but once again, they're not the only ones. Vegans who don't eat dairy products can opt for nondairy choices. These include calcium-fortified orange juice or soymilk, calcium-set tofu, and dark-green leafy vegetables such as collards and kale. If you're not sure you're getting enough calcium in your diet—and most girls don't, even if they're not vegans—check out the iEmily article on calcium
. It may help you figure out if you should be boosting your intake with a separate calcium supplement. back to top
What kind of multivitamins/minerals are good for vegetarians?
Whether you're a vegetarian or not, experts suggest choosing a basic multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains at least 20 essential vitamins and minerals. It should have no more than 150% of your daily value (DV) of each nutrient. This information is printed on the label. If you have trouble figuring out the label, ask the pharmacist at your drugstore or a clerk at a good health-food store to help you. back to top