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Diet and Nutrition

Veggin' Out in the Cafeteria

ChoicesThe teenage years are a time of change and choice. Many teens may choose a vegetarian diet in place of the traditional 'meat n' potatoes' fare that most Americans eat due to personal or other reasons. However, a meatless diet may or may not be healthy depending on the choices made.

Dining out may be easy for most vegetarians since many restaurants offer meatless meals. But the school cafeteria may be particularly challenging for the vegetarian teenager. Here are some ways to make healthful choices in a cafeteria:

  1. Choose vegetables often. This may sound like silly advice, but a vegetarian diet is plant-based, not just meatless. Teens need to eat at least 3 to 5 servings of vegetables each day, just like adults.
  2. Choose low fat dairy products. Yogurt, milk and low fat cheese are excellent sources of calcium and protein. These nutrients are vital for bone growth and strength, normal maturity and height. In addition, fortified dairy products are a good source of vitamin A and D - necessary nutrients for healthy skin and bones. Aim for 3 low fat dairy products per day.
  3. Limit fried foods and sugary snacks. Choose baked potatoes (when available) and fresh fruit for dessert. Both are loaded with vitamin C, a nutrient that's vital to a healthy immune system.
  4. Go for fortified breads and cereals at snack or mealtime. A vegetarian diet often lacks iron. Teenage girls are at high risk for iron deficiency, which may lead to decreased energy, pale skin and learning difficulties. Other sources of iron include dried beans, dried fruit and green leafy vegetables. Pair them with tomatoes, peppers or citrus fruits as vitamin C boosts iron absorption.
  5. Choose nuts, seeds, beans or tofu to meet protein and iron needs. Although these foods are lower in iron than meat, they are good sources of protein and zinc - nutrients needed for healthy skin, hair and nails.
  6. Drink water in place of soda. Water aids in digestion, elimination and maintaining a healthy complexion. A 12 oz can of regular cola has 10 teaspoons of sugar + caffeine. Excess sugar consumption may lead to vitamin deficiencies, cavities and weight gain. That extra caffeine boost may cause insomnia and possibly acne if consumed in excess.
  7. Finally- slow down and enjoy your food! It takes your brain 20 minutes to realize that you've eaten enough, and your hunger center gets turned off. Eating too fast can lead to overeating and possible weight gain long term.

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Last Reviewed: Dec 08, 2008

Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, MEd, RD, LD Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Adjunct Faculty
University of Cincinnati