Healthy Eating

7 Essential Nutrients Teenage Vegetarians MUST have

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My oldest daughter, at the age of 13, declared that she wanted to be a vegetarian.  My first thought was, um, great?!  I was so proud that she was standing by her convictions of no harm to animals. BUT…my freezer was full of a recently purchased pig and cow (which, of course, I do not dare to describe our food that way!) AND I wondered how I was going to cook for both her and my two other carnivores?

I was getting exhausted just thinking about fabricating crafty weekly menus that would make everyone happy.  I was also worried about making sure she would be a healthy teenager.  I am a WI girl who was raised on meat and potatoes and started to make some assumptions that she would be void on at least protein, right?  I knew I would need to begin researching the essential nutrients teenage vegetarians must have.

I dug through my plethora of vegetarian cook books, my precision nutrition textbook and multiple online sources to seek out exactly what my daughter needed to be healthy.  I discovered 7 essential nutrients teenage vegetarians needed that were repeated in all of these sources.  I kept it basic to be used as a quick reference.  Enjoy and keep those teenage vegetarians growing strong and healthy!

(Fast forward to present time, one year later, and we are all doing just fine.  The meat eaters just eat more veggies and beans and have actually gained affection for tofu.   We still have meat on the table but are simply adding more of the colorful stuff that suits the desires of our young vegetarian.)


nutrients teenage vegetarians-iron

WHAT DOES IT DO?  It helps the blood carry oxygen to the lungs, muscles and all parts of our bodies. Because of this role, it also is involved in brain function and helps keep our immune system strong.

WHAT FOODS HAVE IT?  Lentils, Tofu, Kidney Beans, Lima Beans, Nuts, Bulgar Wheat, Spinach & Iron fortified cereal

Plant-based Iron is better absorbed when consumed with vitamin C.  There are many vegetables that contain both Iron and Vitamin C (see below), but you can also create your own combinations.  For example, you can simmer iron-rich tofu in a vitamin C-rich tomato sauce or by adding vitamin C-packed bell peppers to an iron-filled three-bean salad.

HOW MUCH EVERY DAY? Boys and girls  ages 9-13 need about 8 milligrams; 15 milligrams of iron daily for girls ages 14 to 18, and 11 milligrams daily for boys ages 14 to 18

Plant-based Foods with Iron AND Vitamin C

*Beet Greens *Brussels Sprouts *Fortified Cereals *Garbanzo Beans *Green Peas *Kale *Lentils *Parsley *Shiitake Mushrooms *Soybeans *Spinach *Swiss Chard *Wheat Bran


nutrients teenage vegetarian-protein

WHAT DOES IT DO?  It is involved in most every type of cell function including production of antibodies and hemoglobin.  It is the building block of all tissues and it helps muscles remain strong.

WHAT FOODS HAVE PROTEIN?  Cheese, Eggs, Nut Butters, Tofu, Chickpeas/Garbanzo Beans, Yogurt, Quinoa, Oats, Wheat

HOW MUCH EVERY DAY?  0.43 grams per pound of weight for 11 – 13 year olds and 0.4 grams per pound of weight for 14 – 18 year olds


nutrients teenage vegetarian-calcium

WHAT DOES IT DO? Helps to build strong bones and teeth.  About 40% of bone mass is built during adolescence, and by the late twenties and early thirties, peak bone mass is achieved.  Basically, your bones are as strong as they will ever be by the time you are 30.

WHAT FOODS HAVE CALCIUM?  Green Leafy Vegetables, Calcium-set Tofu, Fortified non-dairy beverages, Legumes and Nuts

You NEED vitamin D (more info below) AND Calcium for optimal bone strength.

HOW MUCH EVERY DAY?  9 to 18 get 1,300 milligrams


nutrients teenage vegetarian-zinc

WHAT DOES IT DO?  Increases immunity and fights colds, is a powerful anti-oxidant that may help prevent cancer, balances hormones, fights diabetes, maintains heart health, prevents diarrhea, aids in nutrient absorption and digestion, increases fertility and helps with muscle growth and repair. 

WHAT FOODS HAVE ZINC? Foods high in protein.  Chickpeas/Garbanzo beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, yogurt/kefir, mushrooms, cocoa and salmon.


  • 9 –13 years: 8 milligrams/day
  • Males age 14 and over: 11 milligrams/day
  • Females age 14 to 18 years: 9 milligrams/day

For MUCH more detailed information, click this link:  10 Powerful Zinc Benefits, Including Fighting Cancer


nutrients teenage vegetarian-vitamin b12

WHAT DOES IT DO?  It helps your body use protein and it creates red blood cells.

WHAT FOODS HAVE VITAMIN B12?  IT IS ONLY AVAILABLE IN ANIMAL-BASED FOOD! This must be obtained with supplements or B12 fortified cereals, breads, crackers, eggs and dairy.

HOW MUCH?  .7 – 1.4 mg for kids and 2.0 mg for adults


nutrients teenage vegetarian-omega-3 fat

WHAT DOES IT DO?  Helps to lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, treat depression and boost brain health.  May help manage psychological and behavior conditions including ADHD traits. 

WHAT FOODS HAVE OMEGA-3 FAT?  Flax seeds, Chia seeds, Hemp seeds, Walnuts, Salmon, Tuna


  • 9 to 13 years (boys): 1.2 grams/day
  • 9 to 13 years (girls): 1.0 grams/day
  • 14 to 18 years (boys): 1.6 grams/day
  • 14 to 18 years (girls): 1.1 grams/day 


nutrients teenage vegetarian-vitamin D

WHAT DOES IT DO?  It important for good overall health and strong and healthy bones. It’s also an important factor in making sure your muscles, heart, lungs and brain work well and that your body can fight infection.  You need vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphorus.

WHAT FOODS HAVE VITAMIN D?  The sun is the primary source of vitamin D activation in our bodies.  The vitamin D council does a fantastic job explaining how much sun we need.  This is complex and based on where you live, time of year and the color of your skin.  The further you are from the equator, the less sun exposure you get and the darker your skin, the more difficult it is for your body to absorb vitamin D.  Northern states, like WI, get very little sun exposure form November to March.  The sun needs to touch bare skin for our bodies to absorb it.

Supplementation is often necessary and getting your vitamin D levels checked with a blood test is the best way to know what you need.  I’ve recently learned that non-GMO vitamin D is the best way to go to ensure quality ingredients and prevent toxicity.

HOW MUCH?  The Vitamin D Council recommends that children should supplement with 1,000 IU per 25 pounds of body weight, applying to children who weigh up to 125 pounds and 5000 for adults.  These recommendations are based on a valid 2016 study on children ages 14-18.  This topic is definitely a heated debate as the current RDA (recommended daily allowance) is only 600 IU.

Recommended daily intakes from various organizations:
  Vitamin D Council Endocrine Society Food and Nutrition Board
Infants 1,000 IU/day 400-1,000 IU/day 400 IU/day
Children 1,000 IU/day per 25lbs of body weight 600-1,000 IU/day 600 IU/day
Adults 5,000 IU/day 1,500-2,000 IU/day 600 IU/day, 800 IU/day for seniors


I hope you found this information helpful.   What are YOUR thoughts on the amount of vitamin D we should have?


How to Feed a Vegan Teenager

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations


Top 10 Foods Highest in Zinc

Plant-Based Calcium Sources and Absorption

How much vitamin D do adolescents need?