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Vegetarian eating for young people

young; person; adolescent; vegetarian; vegan; lacto-ovo; lacto; ovo; diet; legume; teenager; ;

There are a number of different styles of vegetarian eating, with the main ones being: vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan


There are a number of different styles of vegetarian eating, with the main ones being:

  • Vegetarian - avoids all meat or fish products
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian - avoids meat, but eats egg and milk products
  • Vegan - avoids all foods of animal origin, eg. dairy foods, eggs, and gelatin.

Some people will eat limited amounts of meat, chicken and fish - but this is not a true vegetarian diet.

The Better Health Channel (Victoria) has a lot of information

Why people choose to become vegetarian

An increasing number of young people, especially young girls are choosing not to eat meat, particularly red meat.

Vegetarianism may be a short lived decision for some young people - for others it may be for a lifetime.

Reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian include:

  • concerns about the killing of animals
  • some young people choose not to eat meat because it makes them feel 'heavy'
  • taste - they don't like meat
  • living in a vegetarian household
  • religious beliefs
  • other people they know are vegetarian  
  • budget reasons - meat can be expensive
  • a small number may become vegetarian when they have an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa. For more information have a look at the Reachout topics in the section Eating disorders 

Vegetarian eating and health

  • A well planned vegetarian diet will help keep excellent health and may lessen the risk of some diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers.
  • Vegetarians in non-vegetarian households may not eat as well because they may be less likely to get help about what they need to eat if the family is not used to planning vegetarian meals.
  • A vegan diet has a greater chance of causing health problems than other kinds of vegetarian diet.
  • Young people especially, have high needs for the right kinds of food because they are growing quickly. Many adolescent girls do not get enough protein, calcium, iron and zinc even when they do eat meat.
  • It is very important that young people on a vegetarian diet plan their meals and snacks to make sure that their health needs are met.
  • A young woman who becomes pregnant has added needs for vitamins, protein and minerals and needs to take extra care with her diet.

Getting enough iron

  • Lack of iron can be one of the health problems for young girls on a vegetarian diet. This causes anaemia (lack of red blood cells in the blood) leading to lack of energy.
  • Low iron in females is most likely to happen in the 13-22 year age group.
  • Starting periods means that young women need more iron because they are losing some blood. The amount of iron they get may be even less because teenagers sometimes tend to be irregular about their meals and what they eat.

Getting the most iron from food can be helped by the following:

  • Eating foods every day that are high in easily digested iron, such as fish (if it is eaten).
  • Eating plant foods every day which contain iron, as suggested in the list below.
  • Eating together foods containing Vitamin C and foods containing plant sources of iron, helps the body to use the iron better. For example if orange juice is part of breakfast, the Vitamin C in the orange juice helps to make best use of the iron in the other foods (such as cereals).
  • Eating foods which have added iron, eg. breakfast cereals, bread, pasta.
  • Avoiding tea and coffee at meals as this can prevent all of the iron being digested.
  • Avoiding eating too much bran.

Note: Iron from animal foods is more easily absorbed than iron from plant foods.

Vitamin C is found in many vegetables and fruit. Some examples are:

  • Vegetables such as capsicum, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and potato
  • Tropical, berry and citrus fruit juices (eg orange and lemon juice)
  • Berries
  • Citrus fruits (eg oranges, lemons, grapefruit)
  • Tropical fruit (eg bananas, pineapples, mangoes).

Vegetarian foods high in iron

The amount of iron needed each day is:

  • 6-8mg per day for children up to 11 years
  • 10-13mg per day for all young people 12-19 years old (male and female), and for women who are having periods or are pregnant
  • 7mg per day for men and post menopausal women.


Food Amount Amount of iron
Lentils/dried beans, peas 1 cup cooked 3-4 mg
Baked beans ½ cup 2 mg
Cooked peas ½ cup 1.2 mg
Cooked Broccoli 1 cup 1.5 - 2 mg
Cooked spinach ½ cup 2.2 mg
Boiled/Baked potato 1 cup ½ to 1 mg
Iron fortified cereals 30g 2-3 mg
Wholemeal bread 1 slice 1 mg
Egg 1 egg (60 gm) 1 mg
Dried apricots 5-6 pieces (30 gm) 1.5 mg
Dried peaches 2-3 pieces (30 gm) 2 mg
Dried figs 3 med (60 gm) 1 mg
Raisins 30 gm 0.6 mg
Almonds/walnuts 30 gm 1 mg
Cashew nuts 30 gm 1.5 mg
Tahini/sesame butter 1 tablespoon 1.8 mg
Peanut butter 1 tablespoon 0.5 mg
Milo 4 heaped teasp.
(20 gm)
4.7 mg
Ovaltine 3 heaped teasp.
(15 gm)
2.6 mg

Note: It is common for information on the amounts of iron in foods to vary between resources.

More information about nutrients can be found in the publication from the NHMRC 'Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand'

Getting enough zinc

Zinc is needed for growth and repair of body cells. Vegetarians can get zinc when they eat legumes (see Legumes), eggs, milk and milk foods.

Getting enough vitamin B12

  • B12 is a vitamin essential for making blood cells and nerves.
  • The only reliable sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians should be able to meet their needs with eggs, milk and milk products.
  • Vegans can be at risk of not getting enough and should make sure they get extra vitamin B12 in their diet. Look for foods like soy milk with added B12. B12 may also be found in fermented foods such as miso, tempeh, cider and fermented sauerkraut.
  • Young women who are vegans and are pregnant or breast feeding a baby need a lot of extra vitamin B12 for normal development of the baby's brain. They probably need to take vitamin tablets which contain B12.
  • It is important for vegans to see a dietitian before they are pregnant or as soon as possible after they get pregnant.

Getting enough calcium

  • Calcium is essential for strong, healthy bones and teeth. It is also needed for the nerves, muscles and blood clotting.
  • Low calcium in the diet for a long time can lead to osteoporosis (thin, weak bones).
  • There is plenty of calcium in milk and milk foods so lacto-ovo vegetarians should have dairy foods in their daily meals.
  • Vegans can get more calcium by eating nuts, soybeans, calcium-enriched soy milks, dried fruits, broccoli and sesame seeds.

Vitamin supplements

  • Vitamin supplements are not generally needed for someone who is a vegetarian.
  • A doctor can do blood tests to check whether the person is getting the right kind of foods for health.
  • A dietitian can help to work out a healthy and balanced eating plan to suit the each person's needs and taste.
  • Extra vitamins may be suggested by the doctor or dietitian if they find there are some food needs that are not being met.

What parents can do

  • Encourage your daughter or son to see a nutritionist and work out a healthy eating plan that suits their needs and what they like to eat.
  • Encourage your daughter or son to help with shopping for food, planning and getting meals.
  • Don't pressure young people to eat meat as there is a risk of pushing them 'into a corner' where they eat an even less healthy diet.
  • If you are worried about their weight or health get them to see a doctor to have a general health check and a blood test.
  • Have vegetarian meals for the whole family more often. Remember these can be tasty and good for the rest of the family as well.

Sample menus

Meal Vegan Lacto-ovo
  • Orange juice
  • Porridge or muesli and soy milk (fortified)
  • Wholemeal toast + margarine.
  • Peanut butter or baked beans
  • Orange juice
  • Porridge or muesli with milk
  • Wholemeal toast + margarine
  • Egg
  • Wholemeal salad sandwich
  • Nuts and dried fruit
  • Fresh fruit and juices
  • Wholemeal cheese or peanut butter sandwich
  • Salad
  • Fresh fruit or juice
  • A meal made with legumes eg chilli beans, lentil patties, soy bean patties**
  • Baked potato or brown rice
  • Green and yellow vegetables
  • Wholemeal roll
  • Dried fruit + nuts
  • Fruit salad and sunflower seeds
  • A meal made with legumes eg chilli beans, lentil patties, soy bean patties**
  • Baked potato or brown rice
  • Green and yellow vegetables
  • Wholemeal roll
  • Fresh fruit + cheese
  • Fruit salad and yoghurt
  • Fruit - fresh or dried
  • Juice
  • Wholemeal bread or biscuits
  • Soymilk
  • Nuts
  • Fruit - fresh or dried
  • Juice
  • Wholemeal bread or biscuits
  • Cheese/yoghurt/milk
  • Nuts

**Bean patties can be made very simply by mashing a can of beans and mixing with a lightly fried onion, garlic and chilli if liked. Add one cup of packet seasoning (stuffing) mix and then add hot water to make a stiff mixture. Form into patties and fry.

Meal Ideas

  • Every day have a good serve of legumes such as lentils, chilli beans, soy beans, chick peas etc or meat substitute such as TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) or nut protein.
  • Vegans should include two kinds of plant protein at each meal if possible i.e:
    • cereal + nuts/seeds (peanut paste sandwich)
    • cereal + legumes (beans and rice)
    • legumes + nuts/seeds (humus dip).
  • Look in the vegetarian sections at the supermarket for new ideas and foods.
  • Mix boiled rice and steamed vegetables. Stir fry if preferred in a little oil or tasty sauce. Sprinkle with walnuts.
  • Try new forms of grains for variety eg couscous, burghul. These are easily prepared and mix well with legumes, vegetables and nuts.
  • Zucchini slice is an easy meal for vegetarians who eat cheese and milk.
  • Buy firm tofu, cut it up into small cubes and marinate(soak in soy sauce for example) for a couple of hours then fry in a little oil until crisp. Stir fry vegetables, mix in the tofu and serve with rice.


Legumes are foods such as fresh and dried peas and beans (also known as pulses) and lentils. Dried legumes are good for vitamins, protein, minerals and fibre. They can be stored easily as they keep for a long time. They include soy beans, chick peas (used to make humus), haricot beans (used in baked beans), aduki beans, black beans, black-eyed beans, borlotti beans, broad beans (these can be eaten fresh or dried), butter beans, cannellini beans, lima beans, kidney beans, mung beans, marrow beans and lentils.

Preparing legumes

  • Dried beans and peas need to be soaked in water (eg overnight), rinsed and then gently boiled until they are soft. You can cook them with herbs and/or spices to vary the flavour. After this they can be added to any recipe.
  • It is often easier to buy chick peas and soy beans precooked in cans because uncooked ones take a long time to cook.
  • Red and green and brown lentils should be soaked in water for an hour or two. Rinse under running water and cook in boiling water for two minutes (red lentils) to ten minutes (green/brown lentils).
  • Legumes can be cooked in large amounts and frozen for future use.

Ways to use legumes

  • Cook them with herbs and/or spices to vary the taste.
  • Add canned/cooked beans to vegetarian tomato sauces for use over pasta.
  • Buy or make humus as a dip with crackers. Humus can be made with a can of chick peas, drained, a cup of tahini, juice of 2 lemons, 4 cloves of garlic and as much of the liquid from the can as needed to make a dip. Blend in a food processor.
  • Mash canned legumes and mix with yoghurt and herbs and/or spices to make a quick sandwich filler or dip.
  • Use canned legumes in salad. Rinse with cold water and drain before use.
  • Use lentils and/or dried beans in winter soups with lots of vegetables ie minestrone. Serve with crusty rolls.
  • Use beans and TVP to make a vegetarian chilli-con-carne which can be used over rice, in taco shells, over baked potatoes etc.
  • Buy a taco kit and add a cup of cooked brown lentils with the taco seasoning.
  • Make pasta sauce with lentils instead of mincemeat.
  • Buy/make refried beans for use on nachos.
  • Beans can be pureed (blended) and used in sauces for extra protein and nutrients.
  • Make lentil or chickpea and potato curry and serve with rice and mango chutney.

Beans and gas

Some people believe that adding baking soda to the soaking water reduces the gas produced from eating beans. It is unclear whether this does have a beneficial effect and it may lead to the loss of B Vitamins. Rinsing beans after soaking may be helpful. When you start eating beans it is best to start with small amounts and build up gradually. This helps prevent gas and gastric upsets.

Resources in South Australia

Dietitians in community health centres or privte practice (see the 'Yellow Pages')

Books for parents

Stanton, Rosemary:'Rosemary Stanton's complete book of food and nutrition'. Simon & Schuster

The Australian Women's Weekly 'Vegetarian Cooking'.

There are vegetarian magazines which are reasonably priced and have ideas and recipes which can add variety to meals.


Better Health Channel  


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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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