Published: Jan. 18, 2006
Updated: Apr. 12, 2010
“Mom, Dad... I’ve decided to become a vegetarian.”
For parents who have been concerned about their child’s nutrition since the breast-milk-versus-formula debate, this announcement can trigger an entirely new set of worries. Will my child get enough protein? What about calcium? Iron?
They’ll be relieved to learn that vegetarian children can get all the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy. “The key is to have good variety in the diet,” says Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center.
Most vegetarians fall into one of two main categories:
“Vegans eat only plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts,” Politi says. “Both types of diets can be perfectly well-balanced, but they need a little more careful planning than if you eat a wider range of foods.”
To plan for protein, all types of vegetarians can include soy products, vegetables, and peanut butter in their diets. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs as well as dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese can also provide protein power.
Iron-deficiency anemia is prevalent among children but doesn’t seem to be more prevalent among vegetarian children than among non-vegetarians, Politi says. “Good sources of iron for a kid who does not consume meat products could be iron-fortified cereals, grains, dried fruits, and nuts.”
Kids also need calcium to promote bone health. “Meeting calcium recommendations is a concern for everyone, not only vegetarians,” Politi says.
“In this country, we consume only about half the calcium recommended by major health organizations. I would recommend two or three glasses of milk a day for a child who is lacto-ovo vegetarian. For a vegan, I would recommend soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice.”
Politi also recommends good sources of vitamin D, since studies have shown that, especially in the winter, when we don’t get enough vitamin D from sunshine, we can tend to be deficient. Children can get vitamin D from milk or from a multi-vitamin supplement.
With a little research and planning, helping vegetarian kids eat a diet that is adequate, satisfying, and nutritious isn’t difficult. Vegetarian diets also provide proven, lifelong health benefits.
“Studies show that vegetarians, at least in this country, tend to have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, colon cancer, and diabetes,” Politi says. “We know that eating vegetarian can have a lot of advantages.”
If your child goes vegetarian, can you count on her getting enough calories to fuel her growing body?
Yes, as long as your junior vegetarian eats a variety of foods. Plant-based foods tend to be high in fiber, so even though they aren’t calorie-dense, they can make a child feel full.
So encourage your child to also eat foods that concentrate the calories. These include dairy products and eggs for ovo-lacto vegetarians. For those who are totally vegan, nuts add welcome variety as well as an extra calorie boost.