According to the American Dietetic Association position paper on vegetarian diets, people who eat a vegetarian diet have a lower risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. They also tend to have lower LDL cholesterol levels, body mass index (BMI) readings and overall cancer rates (1). However, when it comes to a vegetarian diet, there are right and wrong ways to go about adopting this (largely) healthful way of eating. For this reason, education on a healthful vegetarian diet is critical.
A 2005 poll showed that 3 percent of 8- to 18-year-old children were vegetarians (1). While it's been well established that a vegetarian diet can be healthful and adequate in nutrition, children and teens do require age-appropriate intakes of certain nutrients. Especially important for vegetarians are: protein, calcium, iron, zinc, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12 in amounts sufficient to support growth and development. Guidance from parents in making deliberate food choices helps maintain balance and variety, ensuring that nutritional needs are met. If your child has decided to "go veg," here are the nutrition considerations that need to be taken into account:
For many people, protein is synonymous only with meat, fish and fowl, however, there are many plant-based foods that are high in protein, such as, beans, peas or lentils, nut butters, soy foods and eggs (for lacto-ovo vegetarians). Children's protein needs, depending on age, ranges from 16 to 44g per day (2), but a variety of vegetarian protein sources can provide sufficient amounts. Iron is the most common nutrient deficient in vegetarians, and especially in vegans, who don't eat any animal products, the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Pediatric Nutrition Handbook" says. This is because iron-rich plants contain a type of iron that's harder for the body to absorb than the iron found in animal products.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently doubled the amount of Vitamin D it recommends for infants, children and adolescents to 400 IU per day beginning the first few days of life. Vegetarians can get Vitamin D from fortified foods, supplements and sunlight exposure.
The requirement for Vitamin B12 is tiny but critical. It can be found in fortified cereals, fortified soy and other nondairy milks, fortified veggie meats, and cow's milk, eggs and yogurt for lacto-ovo vegetarians.
Sufficient calcium intake can be obtained from a variety of plant-based sources, but fortified orange juice as well as soy, rice, almond and other plant-based milks are an easy and efficient way to help meet kids' calcium needs (2). Fill in the gaps with fortified breakfast cereals, almonds and almond butter.
Getting enough zinc isn't typically on new vegetarians' minds, but vegetarian diets often contain less zinc than non-vegetarian diets. Because this mineral is a critical component in so many functions of the body, it's wise to know good food sources. The National Institutes of Health says that non-meat sources of zinc are more difficult for people to absorb. One way to make plant zinc more absorbable, they say, is by "soaking beans, grains and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them and allowing them to sit after soaking until sprouts form." They also say that consuming leavened grain foods -- like bread -- helps the body to better absorb the zinc, compared with unleavened grain foods, like crackers. There are many other kid-friendly options that are high in iron, such as veggie burgers, dates, almonds and cheese. A good multivitamin also helps cover the bases.
1. Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-1282.
2. Melina V, Davis B. The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet, 2nd ed. Summertown, Tenn.: Healthy Living Publications; 2003.
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