Our 13-year-old daughter announced that she is becoming a vegetarian. We're worried that this kind of diet will interfere with her growth.
Many parents whose teen-agers decide to become vegetarians have concerns similar to yours. However, most teen-agers who adopt this lifestyle do just fine and in fact may be protecting themselves against various illnesses that begin to occur in middle age. The most important point is what kind of vegetarian your daughter decides to become.
There are basically three kinds of vegetarian diets: partial, traditional and "new" or "atypical." Partial vegetarians eliminate red meat from their diets but will eat poultry and/or seafood. These individuals are not at risk for any kind of malnutrition. In fact, by decreasing the amount of red meat they consume, they naturally limit their fat intake, and by eating fruits and vegetables, increase their fiber consumption. Both are important nutritional goals for all of us.
Traditional vegetarians who include eggs and/or dairy products but no other animal protein are also not at risk, although they do need to monitor the amount of fat they consume in products such as cheese and eggs. Traditional vegetarians who eliminate all animal products from their diets must be a bit more careful. These individuals must be sure they get adequate amounts of vitamin B-12 by eating cereals fortified with this vitamin or by taking a vitamin supplement. They must also include lots of green, leafy vegetables or drink calcium-fortified orange juice for calcium and get lots of exposure to sunlight (but not sunburn!) for vitamin D (which is made in the skin). Women need to be sure they get an adequate supply of iron as well. Originally, there was concern that these diets lacked adequate amino acids (needed to make protein), but more recent information indicates that as long as your daughter eats a wide variety of grains and vegetables throughout the day, she will meet her protein requirements.
If your daughter is thinking about adopting yet a more restrictive diet (as is the case with "new" or "atypical" vegetarians), it is best to consult her physician or a nutritionist for advice.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.