The protein problem


Emily Larson

Sources aside, protein remains a necessary component of a balanced diet.

With health becoming an escalating concern amongst teens as they grow older and become more involved in athletics, more and more students are turning towards a vegetarian- or vegan-based diet to accomplish these health goals. But with more vegetables and less meat, teens may not realize the amount of protein they are cutting out of their daily diet.

Teens are always growing, and their bones and muscles may be changing in this process. A truly balanced diet is important, and a lack of protein can hinder the body’s ability to repair itself. “Protein is essential during growth periods, because it not only helps to repair and rebuild muscle, but also enhances bone density, which is extremely important for teens,” licensed Lifetime Fitness nutritionist Britni Thomas said.

One reason teens aren’t consuming enough protein may be from switching to vegetarian or vegan diets, but even for people eating meat, they may not be consuming enough sources of protein in general. “Similar to adults, many teens have a very carbohydrate-heavy diet, according to the Standard American Diet,” Thomas said.

Though many people may believe they can achieve a healthy diet sans protein, those who eat less sources or cut them completely out may see specific functions compromised. “Meat contains Vitamin A, which is critical for development and maintenance of vision, skin health, teeth, and bone growth; B12, which is critical for energy and muscle strength, and Vitamin D, which is necessary for nearly all functions in the body. Meat also contains all of our essential amino acids,” Thomas said.

Protein can still be attainable for those practicing no-meat diets. “Dairy, eggs, beans nuts, nut butters and seeds are excellent sources of protein,” Thomas said. “Vegetables also contain protein in varying degrees; broccoli and peas have a higher protein content.” This means that those who opt for a vegetarian or vegan meal are still able to find multiple sources of protein, all while following the rules of their diets.

However, if you are consuming protein from a non-meat source, you should have it with almost every food you eat. “Protein should be consumed with every meal and snack whenever possible,” Thomas said. Teens that are eating meat as their main source of protein, though, should make sure the type of meat is the healthiest choice for them. “Choose organic, grass-fed, free-range or wild caught animal protein sources if possible, to avoid any health problems that could result,” Thomas said.

Whether consuming meat or not consuming meat, protein is a vital food source for every teen’s diet, and should always be considered when making meal choices now and in the future.