Vegetarianism In Children
Vegetarianism has gained popularity to an exponential degree since I first went vegetarian about 32 years ago. So we are speaking the same language, for the purpose of this article, a vegetarian diet may include cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt, and possibly eggs, but no beef, pork, chicken, or fish. I will also address the vegan diet which excludes all foods from animal sources.
Nutritionally speaking, children can safely and easily thrive on a vegetarian diet. Up to the age of nine, 100% of protein needs can be met with the three servings of dairy recommended by the USDA. Over the age of nine, 50-70% of protein needs are met with three servings of dairy. The remainder of protein needs, as well as zinc, iron, and vitamin B12 requirements, can be met with a variety of grains, beans, nuts, cheese, and soy-based meat substitutes. Fruits and vegetables, especially dark greens, are also important parts of a balanced vegetarian diet.
The vegan diet, which contains no foods from animal sources, can be much more difficult to navigate and meet nutritional needs. Three servings a day of a milk substitute should be selected that provide around 8 grams of protein and 25-30% Daily Value for calcium and vitamin D per serving. The vegan diet relies much more heavily on meeting calorie, protein, fat, and vitamin and mineral needs through a variety of whole grains, beans, and nuts. Avocados, hummus, and nut butters can provide healthy fats, protein, and extra calories. Zinc and iron needs can be met through food sources, but vitamin B12 often needs to be supplemented in the vegan diet.
As a teen living in Mesquite, Texas — the Rodeo Capital of the World — there were few vegetarian options. There are now many vegetarian items available in the grocery store and restaurants making the vegetarian diet fairly unrestrictive. However, since troublesome behaviors can arise with any dietary restriction a parent places on a child, parents should discuss, consider, and agree upon dietary practices for their children.
It is also important to mention that it is not uncommon for pre-teens and teens to choose to become vegetarian (as I did). Many cite animal welfare concerns or health reasons. This can also be a red flag for an eating disorder and should be monitored and discussed with your health care provider. A visit with a dietitian can help to educate the young vegetarian on a healthy, balanced diet, and help screen for need for referral to another health care professional if other signs of an eating disorder are present.
*** Jennifer Yoon sees patients at the Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair office. For an appointment, please call (412) 221-2121. Read more from Jennifer on The PediaBlog here.