Raising a Vegetarian: The Growing Trend – Is it Healthy for Children?
Many households, adults and children alike have chosen to eat green as well, adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.
One of the primary concerns of critics is that children, from toddlers to teens, may not receive the nutrients they need with a meatless diet. Lauren Schmitt, registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified personal trainer with Healthy Eating and Training, Inc., disagrees. Children opting away from diets filled with meat can live a healthy lifestyle with foods from all five food groups while being raised as a vegetarian.
“Children who eat a well balanced lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet which includes dairy products and eggs can achieve the same health status as those children who eat meat products,” says Schmitt. “With attention to detail, deficiencies in vegetarian children are rare and their growth is equal to that of their peers.”
Healthy Meal Planning at its Best
According to Schmitt, research shows that vegetarian kids and teens take in less cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat and eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber. “Frequent meals and snacks need to be properly planned to ensure the nutrient needs of the child are being met,” she says.
Parents and nannies can plan to supplement the common deficiencies that children face, which include protein, iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
“When the meat is taken off the plate, replace it with dairy products, eggs, beans, lentils, tempeh, tofu and nuts or seeds to meet protein and calorie needs,” says Schmitt. “That space on the plate cannot remain empty.”
Foods that are higher in unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, oils, coconut, avocado and nut butters help children meet their energy needs, says Schmitt. In addition, vegetarian children need at least one and a half cups of fruit, two to two and a half cups of vegetables and approximately six ounces of grains per day.
The key for vegetarian children is getting adequate protein at each meal, says Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and creator of the Zone Diet. “For vegans, this means eating adequate amounts of tofu, tempeh, or soy imitation meat products at each meal, along with a lot of colorful carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables,” he says. “The greater the level of fruits and vegetables and the fewer of grains and starches ensures maximum nutrients with the less amount of excess carbohydrates.”
Fortified products can also help supplement a vegetarian child’s diet. Bump up your child’s iron intake with cereals that are packed with vitamins and minerals, and of course, iron. Schmitt recommends eating a source of vitamin C, such as an orange, with cereal to increase the absorption of iron.
“For insurance, a child can take a general multi-vitamin to meet baseline goals for vitamins and minerals,” says Schmitt. If the family is restricting animal products, a B12 supplement will provide the needed vitamins and minerals, too.
Supplementing your child’s diet with more calcium can be a bit tricky, says Carol Cottrill, certified nutritional consultant and author of “The French Twist.” “Since kids aren’t crazy about the plant sources that provide calcium, such as kale and collard greens, the good news is that many foods today are fortified with calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, so a vegan child can get enough calcium without downing supplements,” she says.
Maintaining a vegetarian diet can be more challenging during childhood and adolescence and there may be an additional burden on the parent or nanny to shop and prepare balanced vegetarian meals, says Cottrill. “For this reason, start slowly when switching from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet,” she warns. “Begin by serving larger portions of veggies and smaller portions of meat while offering a meatless dinner once or twice a week, which may help digestion by easing into a higher fiber diet. With a little time, knowledge, responsibility, and commitment, a plant-based diet can be a good thing.”
The key is to provide a balance when planning meals for vegetarian children. “Whether vegetarian or not, children need to eat a well-balanced diet with a variety of fresh food,” says Schmitt. “Children in general are at risk if they eat a poor diet. So, no matter what type of diet is followed, families need to focus on getting their child a nutrient rich diet filled with whole gains, fruit, vegetables, food sources of calcium and vitamin D and protein rich foods.”