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When Your Teen Changes Their Diet, Should You Be Supportive?

Lori Sawyer of Spokane, Washington, wasn’t completely surprised when her daughter Annie announced at age 13 that she wanted to be a vegetarian.

“She has always been a huge animal lover and flirted with the idea a few times before, but it never stuck,” she says.

When Annie changed schools last fall, several of the kids in her class were vegetarian. Seeing them make it work gave her the confidence that she could stick with it, too, Sawyer says.

Annie is hardly alone. Do you have a teen vegan or vegetarian? It’s becoming more and more common. 5 percent of teens identify as vegetarians, and veganism is growing rapidly among young people. Paleo, gluten-free, and other alternative diets are also becoming more widespread.

It’s easy to be caught off guard when your teen suggests such a major life change.

What to do When Your Teen Wants to Change Their Diet:

1. Find out why.

Whether it’s for ethical or health-related reasons, there should be a “why” behind the change, says certified nutrition coach Hope Pedraza of inBalance, a fitness and wellness studio in San Antonio.

“Parents should discuss with their teen the reasons behind their decision. They should factor out the possibility of an eating disorder,” she says. “Changing eating behavior should come from a healthy mindset, not one that honors restriction or control.”

2. Have your teen do some research.

Pedraza also recommends that parents ask their child to research the diet. Are they really ready to never eat eggs, cheese, pasta, or burgers? “Sometimes this research helps them see that they are, in fact, biting off more than they can chew—and it isn’t a sustainable life change,” she says.

3. Consult a healthcare provider.

Courtney Schuchmann, a registered dietitian in Chicago, encourages families to seek advice from a healthcare provider about ensuring adequate nutrition. She also advises doing both initial and periodic follow-up bloodwork to help ensure that the diet remains healthy.

4. Be clear about nutritional expectations.

While Sawyer didn’t see a health provider about her daughter’s vegetarianism, she did discuss her nutritional expectations. “I told Annie I had no problem supporting her, but it didn’t mean she could default to carbs and cheese. She admitted this was true for some of her vegetarian friends,” says Sawyer.

Instead, together they discussed a diet that would include more veggies and fruits, along with beans, eggs, and other healthy sources of protein.

Schuchmann does not recommend restrictive diets for picky eaters—teens who aren’t open to trying new foods or aren’t interested in eating healthy staples like beans, nuts, and seeds.

5. Have your teen participate in making the change.

It’s not unreasonable to consider what a teen’s special diet might do to your kitchen. After all, many parents already feel like short-order cooks. With the Sawyers’ older two sons off to college, accommodating Annie hasn’t been an issue. “My husband Ben and I don’t mind eating vegetarian, so most of the time I just make meals we can all eat,” she says. Or she’ll adapt the meal, such as adding ground turkey to a vegetable bean soup after serving Annie’s portion.

Expect your teenager to pitch in with the new way of cooking. Making a meal to share with the whole family can be a way for everyone to understand and enjoy the teen’s new diet.

In addition, joint meal planning and shopping can emphasize a team approach to this lifestyle change and help ensure a balanced diet, says Schuchmann. Participating in cooking and meal planning can also help teens stay educated on how food affects them and their bodies, adds Pedraza, and hopefully validate why they made the choice in the first place.”

6. Be on the lookout for potential issues.

Weight loss is a common concern with limited dietary choices. It may indicate an unhealthy relationship with food—especially if a teen is underweight or loses a lot of weight very quickly.

However, children who are more interested in the control and restriction of certain foods, rather than health or ethics, may be vulnerable to an eating disorder, Pedraza cautions.

Parents should also be on the lookout for lethargy and frequent sickness. Nutrient deficiencies also may be indicated by changes in:

  • Eyes: night blindness, dryness
  • Nails: soft/brittle, ridges, white spots
  • Hair: hair loss/thinning
  • Skin: inflammation, bumps, flakiness, dryness, eczema
  • Mouth: changes in taste, mouth sores, bleeding gums, very cracked/peeling lips, swollen tongue
  • Muscle: soreness/spasms or restlessness of legs/arms

Other signs of disordered eating, adds Schuchmann, are constant concern over weight, significant weight loss, avoiding foods for fear of weight changes, avoiding social outings because of food restrictions, and having to eat in front of other people.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.