Should Kids ‘Veg’ Out?

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More kids are saying no to meat and going green — they’re eating vegetables! But is a vegetarian diet OK for kids? If your child wants to become a vegetarian, there’s no need to panic. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegetarian diet is appropriate for all people at all stages of life, and this includes growing children and teens. However, the key phrase here is well-planned. Candy bars and soft drinks qualify as a vegetarian fare, but they are, of course, not healthy foods. A registered dietitian (RD) can help you and your son or daughter design a vegetarian eating plan that provides needed nutrients and is high in fiber, low in solid fat and cholesterol, and conducive to promoting a healthy weight. Here are some important vegetarian menu-planning topics you will want to keep in mind and discuss with your child or teen and the RD.

I’m a Vegetarian! So you want to be a vegetarian — what kind? While all vegetarians exclude meat, some eat certain animal products, such as milk and eggs, and some do not.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy and egg products (this is the most nutritious vegetarian choice for growing teens).
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but do not eat eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but do not eat dairy products.
  • Vegans eat food from plant sources only; they do not eat eggs, dairy products or honey.

Nutrient Know-How. Vegetarian children and teens need to eat a well-planned diet to ensure they get enough calories and nutrients to support growth and health. While all nutrients are important, pay particular attention to the following key nutrients:

Protein — Kids need to eat protein-rich foods every day to help them grow and produce antibodies that help fight infections. Foods that contain protein include meat, dairy products, and most plant foods, such as vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Several studies have shown that vegetarians no longer need to combine specific foods within a meal. Your child’s body will make its own complete proteins if a variety of plant foods and/or dairy products and enough total calories are consumed during the day. Be sure to try my Broccoli and Swiss Cheese Quiche.

Vitamin B12 — This vitamin helps your child’s body make red blood cells. Over time, a lack of vitamin B12 can lead to irreversible nerve damage and anemia. Because vitamin B12 is found only in animal-based foods like meat, milk, and dairy products, if your child is a vegan, you will need to purchase foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12 like breakfast cereals, breads, and soy milk. Some kids may even require a vitamin B12 supplement.

Calcium — Calcium helps your child’s bones grow and stay strong. Calcium is also important for several other bodily functions: it plays a role in helping the heart beat regularly and building healthy tech. Milk and dairy products provide the majority of calcium in most people’s diets. But there are also several calcium-rich plant foods, such as broccoli, spinach, dried beans, peas and lentils. If your child is not drinking milk or eating dairy products, encourage her to consume a variety of calcium-fortified foods, such as tofu, orange juice and breakfast cereals. My Fruit Kebabs with yogurt dip are sure to be a hit!

Vitamin D — Your child needs vitamin D to help his body absorb calcium and possibly ward off certain types of cancer. There are only a few food sources of vitamin D, such as egg yolks, certain nuts, oils and vitamin D-fortified milk and yogurt. But your child’s body can make its own vitamin D when his arms, hands and face are exposed to sunlight for at least 15 minutes a day. However, recent studies have found if you live in a northern, cooler climate with limited sun exposure (like Chicago) and if your child wears sun screen, chances are his body will not make enough vitamin D. Be sure to encourage your child to eat vitamin D-rich foods. While sunscreen is important, you may want to let him get about 15 minutes of sun before slathering some on his body. Finally, if your child is a vegan a vitamin D supplement may be a good idea.

Iron — Growing children can have trouble getting enough iron, even if  they’re not vegetarians. But children need iron as part of a complex process of energy production. If they don’t get enough, they’re likely to feel tired and may develop iron-deficiency anemia. Meat provides a type of iron that the body can absorb quite easily. Many plant foods, like enriched breads and cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits also contain iron, but it’s not absorbed as well as the iron in meat. That’s because there are substances in plant foods (phytates and oxalates) that make the iron less absorbable. You can enhance your child’s ability to absorb iron by serving foods that contain vitamin C, like citrus fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes and green pepper, along with foods that contain iron. For example drinking orange juice at breakfast along with eating a bowl of raisin bran will help boost your child’s iron intake at that meal.

So if your child or teen has expressed an interest in foregoing meat and becoming a vegetarian, are you going to let him or her give it a try?

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Jodie Shield
Jodie Shield, MEd, RDN, LDN, is a Chicago-based consultant and university educator. Visit her website, Healthy Eating For Families, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.