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
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when planned appropriately, vegetarian 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.
Read: 9 Nutrients Even Healthy Kids Miss
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.
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
I think there is a real opportunity here for parents to get their kids to develop a taste for fruits and veggies at an early age. But first, the parents themselves must increase their own intake of vegetarian foods. You are doing a fantastic job by helping parents understand these popular myths!
Regarding the myth of enough protein, I think parents fear that their kids will not grow up to be “big” in physical size and that eating meat is necessary. You are correct to point out that it is possible to get enough protein from a variety of vegetarian sources, but parents need to watch out for deficiency of key nutrients. I think supplements may have a place in a strict vegetarian diet, but parents must consult their pediatricans and research available products for purity and efficacy before using them.
Thank you for linking to my blog. Here is another p0st on vegetarian diets that might interest your readers
Great post except the calcium myth. Calcium from plant sources is better absorbed by the body than from animal sources AND you get to avoid the excessive fats AND the excessive proteins that cause the calcium you just got to get leached from the bones.
Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon
on a daily basis. It’s always interesting to read through articles from other authors and practice something from other sites.
Why do so many people consider “fish” as part of a vegetarian diet? Is this exclusively an American thing? Fish has never been, nor will it ever be, a vegetable. (Of course for lacto-ovos caviar is debatable but the general guideline for most lacto-ovos is that if you don’t need to kill the animal to derive the animal product, it is acceptable). I only belabor this point because it is not fun for a vegetarian to be promised dietary accommodations only to have a hunk of dead fish slapped in front of them.