Although many parents, and even some Pediatricians, think that it is unhealthy for children to be on vegetarian diets, if well planned, a vegetarian diet can provide all of the nutrients that your child needs to be healthy.
In addition, since vegetarian diets are generally high in fiber, low in cholesterol and low in saturated fats (all characteristics of a healthy diet), they may actually be more healthy than most American diets and may lead to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes.
Parents, especially if they are vegetarians, can feel reassured that they can safely raise their kids to be vegetarians too.
Types of vegetarians:
There are actually many different types of vegetarians, ranging from those that just avoid red meat (semi-vegetarian) to vegans, who do not eat any foods that contain animal products.
- semi or partial vegetarian: avoids red meat only
- ovo-lacto-vegetarian: avoids meat, seafood and poultry, but does consume milk products and eggs
- lacto-vegetarian: avoids meat, seafood and poultry and eggs, but does consume milk products
- ovo-vegetarian: avoids meat, seafood and poultry and milk products, but does consume eggs
- vegan: avoids all foods that contain animal products, including meat, seafood and poultry, milk products and eggs
Vegetarian diets can lead to health problems in children and deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals if the diet is not well planned. And the more restrictive the diet, the higher the risk of problems. It may be helpful to see a nutritionist that specializes in vegetarian diets for children, especially if your child's diet is very restrictive, such as a macrobiotic diet.
Some areas that you should pay special attention to if your child is on a vegetarian diet include:
- Energy/Calories. Vegetarian diets may have less calories than diets that include meat and dairy products. Although it isn't necessary to count calories each day, you should ensure that your child is receiving enough calories for their optimal growth. In general, if your child is eating a well balanced and varied vegetarian diet, is gaining weight and developing normally and is active, with a lot of energy, then he is probably getting enough calories.
- Vitamin B12. This vitamin is only absorbed from animal products, so your child will need to take supplements or eat foods that are fortified with Vitamin B12 (check nutrition labels), including fortified soy milk and some meat substitutes. Also, nutritional yeast as a great way to get B-12.
- Vitamin D. This vitamin is present in fortified milk, egg yolks, and fish. Your body also makes Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so most children do not have problems with Vitamin D deficiency. If your child is not exposed to the sun very often, then you should consider Vitamin supplements or a soy milk that is fortified with Vitamin D.
- Iron. In general, the absorption of iron from meat, chicken and fish is much higher, around 15-30%, than other sources, which have absorption rates of only about 5%. This means that even though some vegetables and fruits contain iron, it is usually not absorbed as readily as the iron from meats. Check the nutrition label to choose foods high in iron, choose foods that are fortified with iron (cereals, bread, rice, and pasta) and consider a vitamin suppletment that contains iron.
- Calcium. Calcium is a mineral that is mostly present in your child's bones. Having a diet with foods that are high in calcium to meet daily requirements is necessary for the development of strong bones. It is also an important way to prevent the development of osteoporosis in adults. Many vegetables contain calcium, especially broccoli, sweet potatoes, great northern and navy beans, and leafy greens. You can also give your child soy milk or orange juice that is fortified with extra calcium.
- Protein. You can make sure that your child gets enough protein and amino acids by eating a good balance of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruits.
- Zinc. Your child will need to take supplements or eat foods that are fortified with zinc to get enough of this important mineral, since the best sources of zinc are meat and yogurt. Zinc is also found in whole grains, brown rice, legumes, and spinach.