Last week, a mom asked me if her baby would miss key nutrients if she fed her a vegetarian diet. This week, the Los Angeles Times had a big spread on raising vegetarian kids. I felt like someone was trying to tell me something.
So a post was born.
According to the American Dietetic Association, 3 percent of children 8 to 18 years old are vegetarians. And if you’re a parent interested in feeding your family a vegetarian diet, you’ll want to get up-to-speed on what you need to do.
So I’ve listed the most common myths, followed by truths, about what it really takes to raise vegetarian kids.
1) All Vegetarians are the same.
The term “vegetarian” is thrown around a lot in our society. But there are different types of vegetarians which makes a big difference when it comes to nutritional aspects of the diet:
–Lacto-Ovo vegetarian: Drinks milk products and eggs but excludes meat, fish, and poultry (some of these vegetarians will eat fish as well).
–Lacto vegetarian: Drinks milk but excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs.
–Vegan: excludes all animal products including dairy.
2) Young children can’t meet their nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet.
Over the summer the American Dietetic Association released a new position paper on vegetarianism and concluded that when planned appropriately, such diets can meet the needs of both children and adults. In fact, vegetarians (including children) have diets higher in fruits, vegetables and fiber and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol.
3) As long as my child is eating enough fruits and veggies they are meeting their nutrition needs.
Even though fruits and vegetables are filled with nutrients, a child can eat plenty of them and still fall short on key nutrients. Here are nutrients of concern for vegetarians of all ages:
–Iron: Iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as it is from meats. This is an easy fix though. Serving vitamin C-rich foods with plant sources of iron (or iron-fortified products) increases their absorption.
–Zinc:Due to its phytic acid content, the zinc in plant foods is not as “bio-available” as it is in meats. Some studies show vegetarians have marginal intakes of zinc while others find their intake adequate. Vegetarian children and adults need to maximize zinc in their daily meals by including soy, beans, grains, nuts, and cheese.
–Vitamin B12: Lacto-Ovo vegetarians usually don’t have trouble getting enough B12 from dairy products. But because vegans avoid animal products, they need a reliable source of B12 coming from fortified foods or supplements.
Calcium:Lacto-ovo vegetarians aren’t as likely to have trouble meeting calcium needs as vegans. Vegans can make up for this by consuming low-oxalate greens like bock Choy, broccoli, collards, and kale. Calcium set tofu, fortified soy milk, and rice milk are other good choices for vegans.
–Omega-3 fatty acids:Children need DHA/EPA essential fatty acids for brain and eye development and sources include fish, eggs, and algae. And studies show the other type of omega-3 fatty acid (ALA) found in plant foods (like flaxseed) only converts a small amount to DHA/EPA.
Parents need to decide for themselves if they are willing to supplement with fish oils or use products made with algae or microalgae. Our next expert interview will shed light on this.
4) Children won’t get enough protein: Vegetarians don’t have trouble meeting protein needs. It’s the deficiency of the nutrients found in animal protein sources (B12, iron, and zinc) that can become a problem if diets aren’t well balanced.
Vegetarians used to be told to include complementary proteins at meals (like beans and rice) in order to obtain all the essential amino acids. As long as they eat a variety of protein sources this is no longer necessary. This post on Little Stomaks, a site dedicated to toddler nutrition, provides good information on protein sources for vegetarian toddlers.
5) Vegetarian children are more likely to develop eating disorders: There have been news reports declaring that adolescent girls with eating disorders are more likely to be vegetarians. But this isn’t a causal relationship. Instead, girls hide behind vegetarianism to explain why they can’t eat what’s being served.
Raising vegetarian kids is definitely doable and can lay the foundation for life-long healthy habits. Being part of a group like the Vegetarian Resource Group can provide families with the support they need.
Another great resource is the ask the dietitian section of VegFamily.com
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1266-1282.