Improving Diets in Adolescent Girls with Dairy and Plant-Based Foods

Adolescent females need a wide variety of nutrients for proper development, especially bone health. Neither plant-based food (even if protein-rich) nor dairy products alone provide the necessary range of nutrients.

Adolescent females need a wide variety of nutrients for proper development, especially bone health. Neither plant-based food (even if protein-rich) nor dairy products alone provide the necessary range of nutrients.

Milk’s protein, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin P, and pantothenic acid are crucial for adolescent girls’ development. However, girls rarely consume the 3 recommended servings per day because of concerns about milk’s calorie content and meal skipping (most often breakfast). The majority of adolescent girls consume too little calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamins D and E found in dairy.

For people who abstain from meat consumption, plant-based foods must provide certain critical nutrients (eg, protein). People abstain from meat for environmental reasons (eg, the destruction of the Amazon for beef cattle grazing land), philosophical reasons (eg, veganism), or health reasons (eg, weight loss or heart disease prevention).

The journal Public Health Nutrition published a study that showed increased consumption of both dairy and plant foods can fulfill key nutrient requirements for bone health and adolescent development.

The study isolated females between 9 and 18 years of age from the NHANES 2007—2010 data set. The researchers compared the nutrient intake of participants who doubled their intake of (1) plant-based foods, (2) protein-rich plant-based foods, and (3) milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Participants who doubled their plant intake consumed more dietary fiber, added sugar, vitamin E, iron, and folate. Yet this diet decreased the intake of total fat, saturated fat, zinc, vitamin D, calcium, and protein. A plant-rich diet would improve the consumption of 2 of 5 nutrients of public health concern identified by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for adolescent females (fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamins D and K).

Doubling intake of protein-rich plant-based foods had little impact on nutritional intake because baseline consumption was low. Protein-rich plant foods include legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Parent and provider encouragement of protein-rich plant foods is critical if an adolescent girl has low overall protein intake.

Doubled dairy consumption was associated with increased vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, calcium, potassium, calories, saturated fat, and protein intake. People who increased dairy intake consumed more of the 3 nutrients of greatest public health concern found in the plant-based diet.

A balanced diet of dairy and plant-based products provides necessary nutrients for adolescent development. A dairy and plant-rich diet is vegetarian, although not vegan, and people can modify it for many plant-based food allergies and sensitivities.