Vegetarianism among teenagers and adults is on the rise, and this trend is certain to increase the number of children that will be raised as vegetarians. The biggest challenge these parents will face is an often-skeptical public that questions whether it is a safe diet option for small and adolescent children. As with any diet, vegetarian parents need to ensure they feed their children a variety of nutritious foods to meet the child’s needs.
Types of vegetarian.
People often read misleading information about what a vegetarian eats and how their diet differs from vegans. All vegetarians avoid eating meat, poultry and fish of any kind. Some vegetarians include eggs or dairy in their diet and others, known as vegans, avoid anything animal derived.
Local Baton Rouge mom, Ginamarie Showalter, has been a vegan for the past 25 years, though she did go back briefly for about eight years to include some dairy. Showalter said she initially adopted the lifestyle for ethical reasons with animal welfare, and continued after learning about the impact eating a non-vegetarian diet can have on a person’s health.
When her son Dane was born, she made the decision with her husband, who she describes as a “total carnivore,” to raise their child as a vegan. Now three-and-a-half years old, Dane wakes up and the first thing he asks for is mango, Showalter said. She said his favorite snacks include chickpeas, kidney beans, carrots and beats.
But, before making the decision for her child, Showalter said she did her research. “I discussed it with pediatricians—multiple pediatricians and nutritionists. Many pediatricians are not trained on food like nutritionists are.” Showalter said a well-rounded vegan diet supplies all the nutrients needed for a child’s healthy development.
Laura S. O’Brien M.S., CEP (clinical exercise physiologist) and CPT (certified personal trainer) at Fitness Design for Women in Zachary, agrees with Showalter’s claims about a well-rounded diet. “You can find the necessary vitamins and nutrients you need in non-meat products,” O’Brien said. “There are plenty of other options besides meat products. I suggest people take a multi-vitamin, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, since our food is so processed now.”
One vitamin essential to the body that Showalter said she supplements her son with is B-12. This vitamin is vital for the nervous system, blood formation and cell processes. Vegetarians who eat dairy or egg products obtain the vitamin through those sources. Vegans are at risk for deficiency if they don’t take steps to make sure they include enough B-12 in their diet. Vitamin B-12 sources for them include nutritional yeast, fortified soy, cereal products and supplements.
During the first year of life, vegetarianism isn’t much of an issue. Parents meet the nutritional needs of their infant by either breastfeeding or using formula. After the first year when many parents transition their child from breastfeeding or formula, fortified soy milk is a recommended alternative for vegetarian families who wish to avoid cow’s milk.
Showalter said more options than ever before allow Dane’s milk to be enriched with the same things cow milk contains. She said his favorites include rice milk and homemade oat and almond milk.
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), when it’s time to introduce protein-rich foods to vegetarian infants, good choices include mashed or pureed tofu, legumes, soy or dairy yogurt, cooked egg yolks and cottage cheese. When lumpier foods are introduced, cubes of tofu, cheese or soy cheese and bite-size pieces of soy burger can be offered.
The ADA reports that lacto-ovo-vegetarian children—those who eat eggs and dairy products—exhibit growth similar to that of their non-vegetarian peers. Though limited, available research about vegan children suggests that they tend to be a little leaner but still within normal ranges for their age. The foods children eat during these years will help shape their food choices and tastes for many years to come.
Showalter said when parents introduce new food options, it is important to consider presentation, preparation and how a parent talks about the food. All of these can sometimes make a big difference in a child’s acceptance. For example, if a child doesn’t like spinach, parents can mix fresh baby spinach in smoothies without the child knowing so they can get their nutrients, she said.
Teenagers raised on a vegetarian diet may actually make better food choices than their peers. The ADA reports that vegetarian adolescents consume more fiber, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C than non-vegetarians do. They also state that they tend to consume more fruits and vegetables and fewer sweets, fast food, and salty snacks than non-vegetarians do.
Going to School.
Most schools lack vegetarian dining options in their lunch programs. Parents need to pack healthy, appetizing meals for their child to take with them each day. Popular options include soy “meat” sandwiches or soy cheese and crackers, peanut butter and jelly, hummus and pitas, and fruits and vegetables.
Showalter said purchasing pre-packaged vegan and vegetarian frozen, boxed and canned food could be costly. However, she said buying fresh beans, grains and produce in bulk could be much more cost efficient.
“Initially, organic produce, which we try to use whenever it is available, can be more expensive, but I feel in the long run it is worth expenses because I do believe eventually we will be incurring health bills as a result of consuming conventional produce,” Showalter said. When eating out, she usually calls ahead to confirm the menu options and has learned how to order. Becoming familiar with the menu, asking how the food is prepared and knowing which restaurants can be accommodating, are all tips to help make a restaurant experience fun and successful for a vegetarian family.
“It is really important to educate yourself with fact based nutritional information rather than the latest fad,” said Katie Mangan, a dietetic technician registered with the ADA. A vegetarian since 1997, she’s raising her four children the same. She said with her nutrition education, she remains confident her children are getting proper nutrition. “My kids have excellent cholesterol levels, are extremely fit and rarely get sick,” said Mangan.
There are some essential nutrients that parents must be aware of when feeding their children in order to provide for optimal health.
Calcium. Growing bones need calcium and vegetarian children can get their supply from enriched tofu, dairy products, green leafy vegetables, orange juice and soy milk.
Iron. Good sources of iron include whole grains, beans, tofu, broccoli, nuts, dried fruits, some cereals and spinach. The type of iron found in plant foods is not as easily absorbed by the body, but you can do things to increase absorption. Vitamin C will assist the body in absorbing iron so it should be consumed during the same meal. Doing this is as easy as making sure you serve a food high in vitamin C when you are serving iron rich foods.
Protein. Because most vegetables lack protein, which acts to repair muscle fiber, O’Brien said she recommends nuts or soy as protein source. Soy protein is comparable to meat in that it is a complete protein and contains all the essential amino acids that the body needs. Today there’s an abundance of protein-filled soy products on the market, including meat substitutes, milks and cheeses. Other good sources of protein include tofu, eggs, dairy products, beans, peanut butter, grains, seeds and some cereals.
Vitamin D. This compound is necessary for healthy bones and can be obtained through food or sunlight. If a child is exposed to sunlight for 15 minutes each day then their body will produce vitamin D. Fortified cereals and juices can also meet vitamin D requirements.
Zinc. This mineral is important to the immune system and having healthy skin. Foods that are good sources of zinc include beans, nuts, wheat germ and whole grain cereals.