10-Minute Vegetarian: When Children Want To Be Vegetarian:
Although I abstain (most of the time, anyway), the rest of my family still eats meat. I feel I've made my own choice and that they should make theirs without judgment. However, my oldest daughter, who is almost 8, kind of likes telling new people that "mommy doesn't eat meat." She has even expressed a concern about animals, so I wonder if someday she will also choose to become vegetarian. If she does, I'll be ready.
A nationwide survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that vegetarianism is growing and becoming more mainstream within the past decade. The group conducted a survey of 8- to 18-year-olds and found that 3%, or about 1.4 million youth, indicated that they never eat meat — up from 2% 10 years ago. One-third of those were classified as vegan.
Children can be healthy and thrive on a well-planned vegetarian diet. But notice, I said "well-planned." As pediatrician Dr. Joanna Dolgoff notes on The Huffington Post, a diet of cheese pizza and French fries, with no actual fruits or vegetables, is hardly a healthy vegetarian diet. The American Dietetic Association has issued a policy statement highlighting research that shows that vegetarian children typically take in less fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and eat more fruits, vegetables, and fiber.
Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition notes that
"Vegetarianism can be conducive to a healthy lifestyle, but you have to balance out what you omit."
For example, you can't just "leave off" the meat without ensuring that the meal as a whole is sufficient in both protein and iron — two important nutrients that could be low in the diets of vegetarians.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian children are at the lowest risk for under-nutrition, says Dr. Bhatia. Vegan children are at risk not only for deficiencies in protein and iron, but also Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Calcium, Zinc, and Riboflavin.
Protein is required for growth, maintenance and repair of body tissues. Children up to age 14 years old need roughly around 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight (younger children need a little more than older children). The most complete source of vegetarian protein is the soybean, but other legumes, such as lentils, chick peas (garbanzo beans), and red kidney beans are also excellent sources. Can't get your child to eat beans? "Sneaky Chef" author Missy Chase Lapine suggests pureeing white beans and adding them to mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, pizza sauce, and more!
Nuts are also a good vegetarian source of protein, and also rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Just beware that they also pack a lot of calories. Add nuts to a trail mix for a hearty after-school snack.
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Plant-based sources of iron are a little more difficult for the body to absorb than are animal-based sources (like red meat). Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are the best vegetarian sources of iron. Also look for iron-enriched grains and cereals, drink prune juice, and eat dried fruit such as raisins or apricots. Foods rich in vitamin C eaten at the same time as vegetarian iron sources can help improve absorption of the mineral.
Lacto-ovo children usually don't have a problem with vitamin B12, as it is found in dairy products and eggs. Parents of vegan children should check labels of cereals and veggie alternative foods to ensure they are fortified with vitamin B12. There are also vegetarian vitamin supplements that may be helpful if your child cannot get enough in their diet.
Calcium and vitamin D, essential for bone health during the critical childhood and teen bone-building years, are also not likely to be a problem in a child who includes dairy products in their diet. Vegan children should focus on beans, dried figs, green vegetables, and fortified alternative "milks" for calcium. Playing outside for 15-20 minutes a day can absorb vitamin D from UV light — and can help improve physical activity levels.
So if your child expresses an interest in vegetarianism, be sure you pay special attention to the quality of his or her diet. And get help if needed! Forming a team of your child's pediatrician, a registered dietitian, you, and your child (they should be involved in the process, too) is the best way to ensure a child is both happy and healthy with their food choices.