Q: My kid just went vegetarian. What do I need to know?
A: First, know that you are a lucky parent. Your child has just made one of the most healthful decisions any child—or adult—can make. When it comes to health benefits, going vegetarian is right up there with quitting smoking and avoiding substance abuse.
Many children today are at risk for weight problems, and things only get worse as they reach adulthood. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease and diet-related cancers are epidemics. But children who are raised as vegetarians or go vegetarian gain a measure of protection against these problems. Take it from the American Dietetic Association, which released a position statement on vegetarian diets in 2009:
"Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index (BMI) and lower overall cancer rates."
The ADA went on to say: "Vegetarian diets in childhood and adolescence can aid in the establishment of lifelong healthful eating patterns and can offer some important nutritional advantages."
In other words, vegetarian diets are great, and it pays to start early.
Q: Okay, but will vegetarian kids grow properly?
A: According to the ADA, vegetarian children grow just fine. In fact, in a study of 1,765 children and adolescents in Southern California, vegetarians actually averaged about an inch taller than their meat-eating counterparts.
And what about overall nutrition? As a good parent, you are no doubt wondering if your child is getting all the essentials. Let's look at the nutrients parents worry about most:
Protein: There is plenty of protein in grains, vegetables, beans, and bean products (e.g., tofu, soymilk). And they do not need to be eaten in any special combinations; a normal variety of these foods, consumed over the course of a day, provides all the protein a growing child needs.
Calcium: Green leafy vegetables and legumes—or "greens and beans," for short—are rich in calcium. This is particularly true for certain greens, such as broccoli, collards, kale, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts, in contrast to spinach, whose calcium is poorly absorbed. You'll also find plenty of calcium in fortified foods, such as fortified orange juice or soymilk. And don't fight over vegetables your child doesn't like. Just serve the ones that do go over well. Tastes broaden as the years go by.
Iron: Greens and beans, which are rich in iron, come to the rescue again. Vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, tend to enhance the absorption of iron consumed in the same meal. If you are concerned, a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement will easily have you covered.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood and nerves. It is not found in unfortified plant foods, although it is present in dairy products and eggs, which you may or may not be serving. But vitamin B12 is easy to find in many fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soymilk, and all common multivitamins. I recommend that everyone—vegetarian or not—take a multivitamin or other convenient source of vitamin B12 every day. Even meat-eaters often run low, due to poor absorption.
So, when it comes to growth and overall health, don't worry. Vegetarian children do really well. You should worry more about the nonvegetarians in your family.
Which brings us to the second thing you should know: it is easier for children to stick with a healthful vegetarian diet when the rest of the family is on the same path. So if your child has gone veg, it's time for you to consider doing the same. It will help the whole family stay slim and healthy for many years to come.
Two Rules of Thumb
Your child will get all the nutrients he or she needs if you do two things:
1. Each day, serve foods from the four healthful food groups: vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), and whole grains.
2. Include a reliable source of vitamin B12, such as any common multivitamin or fortified foods.