Raising a meat-free eater does present some special challenges. If you're the omnivore parent of someone who wants to go vegetarian, it's important to learn how to help your child eat a balanced diet that's not too heavy on easy-to-grab carbs or meat substitutes. “You can get all the nutrients you need on a vegetarian diet,” says Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, CDE, nutrition director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. “But you can't substitute highly processed protein bars and pasta for meat.” Here, we answer your most pressing questions about going vegetarian.
What if my child doesn't eat dairy? If your child chooses vegan eating or eschews dairy, you still need to make sure she's getting enough calcium. Recent research indicates that dietary calcium, with or without vitamin D, significantly increases bone mineral content in children's bodies. Kids need between 500-800 mg a day, says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Disease-Proof Your Child (St. Martin's Griffin, 2005). A cup of calcium-fortified orange juice supplies 500 mg; fill that out with 1/2 cup of fortified tofu (253 mg) and 2 tablespoons tahini (128 mg). A kids' calcium supplement can fill in any gaps.
Will my child get enough protein?
Depending on age, kids generally need 30-60 grams of protein a day, says Politi; for example, an 80-pound child needs about 36 grams daily. Smart food choices make this easy. A single egg contains 6 grams of complete protein and also provides iron and essential vitamins. Milk and other dairy foods are complete proteins that also contain ample calcium. An ounce of cheddar cheese and 1 cup of milk each contain about 8 grams of protein; 1 cup of plain yogurt provides 13 grams. Nuts, beans, and legumes are not complete proteins (which contain all nine essential amino acids), but whole grains can make up the difference. For example, 1 cup cooked black beans plus 1 cup cooked brown rice provides a full 20 grams of protein. Contrary to popular wisdom, vegetarians don't need to eat legumes and grains at the same meal; eating a variety of nuts, beans, and grains over the course of a day or week enables the body to build complete proteins.
How can I help my vegetarian child maintain a healthy weight? When cutting out meat, it's all too easy to fill up on pasta, pizza, and bagels, food choices that can lead to weight gain and even heart disease. “Refined grains tend to allow deposits of belly fat, which secrete hormones differently; belly fat boosts cortisol and epinephrine which, in turn, increase LDL [bad cholesterol] levels,” says Nancy Snyderman, MD, chief medical editor of NBC News and author of Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat (Crown, 2009). “We're already seeing kids with arterial deposits at the age of 6.” Whole-grain flours aren't necessarily better; many are finely ground, a process that causes whole-grain flours to impact blood sugar in much the same way as refined flour, says Fuhrman. What to do: Check fiber content on food labels (a good amount is at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving) and avoid overloading on fat-encouraging baked goods and refined pasta. Stick to whole grains, like brown rice, wheat berries, quinoa, amaranth, and oat groats.
How can I help my vegetarian child fit in? Though a balanced vegetarian diet is obviously healthy and increasingly common, eating vegetarian still isn't the norm. Teach your meat-free kid diplomatic manners. For dinner and party invitations, call ahead, graciously explain your child's dietary preferences, and offer to bring a plant protein dish to share, such as a simple stir-fry or bean-and-vegetable burritos. For play dates, pack healthy protein snacks — nuts, boiled eggs, edamame — for your child and his pal. And instruct children how to gracefully decline meat when it's offered. Saying, “That's gross — I don't eat dead animals” is offensive to even the most understanding hosts. Instead, help your child explain her choices as a matter of personal preference — not a moral judgment on others.
It's a convenient source of high-quality protein, but processed soy's powerful plant estrogens cause concern for many parents. Recent studies note some troubling effects; infants who drank soy formula had higher levels of estrogen and more breast tissue at age 2 than those who drank mother's milk. However, the harmful effects of a meat-based diet are also well known. “I'm more concerned about the growth hormones in meat products than the phytoestrogens in soy products,” says Erin Pavlina, author of Raising Vegan Children in a Non-Vegan World (VegFamily, 2003). The best advice: Use soy in small amounts and not in heavily processed forms (such as soy milk, soy cheese, and soy protein powders), which concentrate phytoestrogens.
Deficiencies cause mood and behavior changes and may contribute to ADHD. Kids need about 8-10 mg a day, says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Disease-Proof Your Child (St. Martin's Griffin, 2005). Good food sources: hummus, spinach, and edamame.
Studies continue to support the link between omega-3 fats and behavior, learning, and brain development. Children need 2 grams a day, the amount in 9 walnut halves plus 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed, says Fuhrman.
Recent studies link vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies with decreased cognitive function and learning. It's found only in animal products, so vegan kids may need a daily B12 supplement. Almost any multivitamin meets the 2.4 mcg requirement, says Furhman. (Be aware of the source; some vitamins aren't vegetarian.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently doubled the amount of vitamin D it recommends for kids after finding that the compound could have lifelong health benefits. It's rare in plant products, so kids who don't eat dairy should take at least 400 IU in a supplement per day, says the AAP.
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