If your child or teen wants to follow a vegetarian diet, he/she is not alone. Three
percent of youth aged 8-18 years call themselves vegetarians. Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude meat, fish and fowl, but still eat dairy and eggs; vegans exclude all animal products (this includes dairy, eggs and honey). Vegetarian diets are higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fat. This is why vegetarians have a lower body mass index and suffer less from coronary artery disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colon and prostate cancer compared to meat-eaters.
Many people choose to become vegetarians because of these health benefits. Although adolescent vegetarians generally eat less fast food and drink less sugar-sweetened beverages than their meat-eating peers, some adolescents experiment with vegetarianism as a means of controlling their weight and some use it as a way of masking disordered eating behaviors. Therefore, it is a good idea to explore your child’s motives for becoming a vegetarian, and then monitor their diets for a while afterward.
With proper planning, a vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate for children and adults of any age. Because a vegetarian diet can be lacking in several important nutrients, it may be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian. Specific nutrients that are of concern include the following:
Protein: good sources of protein include legumes (including soy products and tofu), nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, eggs, and milk products. Vegans will eat all of the above except for eggs and milk. Eating an assortment of these foods over the course of a day should provide all of the essential amino acids.
Iron: many vegetables are loaded with iron, but the iron that comes from plants is not as available to our bodies as the iron from meat. If your child does not eat enough iron-rich foods, a supplement may be necessary.
Vitamin D: vitamin D is found in dairy and in other fortified foods. Vegans who do not eat vitamin D fortified foods may need to take a supplement.
Calcium: dairy, vegetables and calcium-fortified soy are high in calcium. If your child does not eat enough foods that are high in calcium, a supplement may be necessary.
Vitamin A: vitamin A is found only in animal products, but many vegetables contain beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A. Yellow and orange vegetables, leafy greens, apricots, mangos and cantaloupe are all high in beta-carotene. Three servings per day of these foods provide adequate vitamin A.
Vitamin B12: no plants contain B12, so if your child does not eat dairy, eggs or B12-fortified foods, a supplement is necessary.
Omega-3 fatty acids: good sources are walnuts, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, and canola oil. Be sure that your child includes these foods in their diet .
A vegetarian diet can be a healthy option for your child or adolescent as long as they are prepared to put some thought into what they eat and include a large variety of foods. While pizza and French fries may be included in a vegetarian diet, they should not be the major components.