Into The Mouths Of Babes
Ensuring your little vegetarians get all the nutrients they need
By Elisa Bosley
At age 7, Rachel made a decision: No more animals on her plate. "My main motivation was sympathy," she recalls. "It disturbed me, the thought of eating another living thing." Now a tall and vibrant 14-year-old, she's been a vegetarian for most of her young life. And she's got company: Citing environmental concerns, the ethical treatment of animals, parental influence or simply personal taste, a burgeoning number of youth are forgoing meat—and thriving.
For years, studies have lauded the benefits of vegetarianism, including a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. But given children's rapid metabolisms, it's important to ensure that your plant-happy youngsters get the nutrition they need. Remember, if you have any concerns about your child's diet, consult your health care provider.
Balanced meals form the basis of any healthy diet. "Variety is the key," says Janet Zand, N.D., O.M.D., L.Ac., author of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994). "It's not enough to simply avoid meat." Choose widely and wisely to maximize your child's nutritional intake, and watch for these major nutrients:
Protein is essential for young, growing bodies. However, most nutritionists agree that Americans consume far too much protein, which can lead to excessive leaching of calcium through the urine. Also, animal protein is high in saturated fat and cholesterol— well-known detriments to health. Extensive meatless options provide children ample protein for healthy development. "If children are lacto-ovo vegetarians [consuming dairy and eggs] and they like peanut butter and tofu, getting enough protein isn't usually a problem," says Mollie Katzen, mother of two and author of The New Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2000). "If they're vegan [excluding all animal products], they must have tofu, beans, nuts and nut butters in addition to whole grains."
The cornerstone of healthy blood and tissues, iron is abundant in many plant foods, including beans, tofu, whole grains, dried fruits, fortified breads and cereals, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and spinach. Encourage vegetarian children to eat vitamin C-rich fruit, broccoli, green or red peppers and tomatoes as well, as this nutrient aids the absorption of plant-source iron.
Gotta have milk? While dairy products contain calcium, they are by no means the sole source. For vegan children, calcium may be obtained through dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens and kale); calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice and soy milk; almonds; many beans; and sesame seeds. Worried about your vegan daughter's bones? A recent study (Pediatrics, July 2000, vol. 106, no. 1) indicates that regular exercise is far more important than calcium intake in building bone mineral density in adolescent girls.
Children need good fats for proper growth, particularly during adolescence. Replace bad-guy trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils) with monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, nuts and avocados. Ensure adequate essential fatty acid intake (omega-6s and omega-3s) by dressing veggies with flaxseed, walnut and hempseed oils.
"A big issue [for vegetarians] is vitamin B12," says Zand, since this nutrient is not found in plants. Many cereals are now B12-fortified (check the label for cyanocobalamin), as are numerous nondairy beverages; Zand fills her family's saltshaker with seaweed powder to help provide trace amounts of B12 and minerals. In general, a multivitamin/mineral is nutritional insurance for all children who, like adults, don't always eat as they should. According to Michael Murray, N.D., author of Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements (Prima Publishing, 1996), vegetarian children should take extra vitamin B12 and zinc in addition to a multivitamin/mineral.
As with any nonconformist behavior, vegetarian kids may experience teasing from peers, or even from family members. Arm your children with simple information about the vegetarian diet, and let them practice answering queries with you so they're not caught off guard. Their resourcefulness may surprise you.
"People sometimes ask me, 'If you were on a desert island and the only thing to eat was meat, what would you do?'" says Rachel. "I usually respond with, 'Well, if there aren't any plants, how did the meat get there?'"
"I would advise parents to tell their kids to just quietly state their preferences," adds Katzen. "Most people are annoyed when others judge what they eat and brag about their own choices." Sabrina Wilson, cofounder of the popular Web site, www.vegsource.com, agrees: "Gentle honesty goes a long way with most children, and with many adults, too."
What if you're a vegetarian parent but your child craves chicken nuggets? Don't despair, says Sue Frederick, author of A Mother's Guide to Raising Healthy Children—Naturally (Keats, 1999). "As parents, we need to be educators more than enforcers," she says. "If you help your child understand the value of good health, they'll be much more likely to make good choices as they grow older. The idea is to raise your children with balance and love."
Elisa Bosley is a freelance writer specializing in food, health and travel.