September 16, 2008

How to Make Sure Your Vegetarian Child Eats Right

By Dr. Helen Minciotti

Most 9-year-olds haven't taken a firm stand on social issues, but one of my patients was proving to be the exception to the rule. The young lady refused meat, saying she just could not bring herself to eat animals.

The girl's mother wanted to be supportive (mom confided that when she thought too hard about where her own meat meals were coming from, she became a little queasy, too). At the same time, mom was concerned about the wisdom and safety of the vegetarian lifestyle.

Kids choose to be vegetarian for a variety of reasons. Some grow up in this lifestyle because of their parents' cultural, religious or social backgrounds. In my experience, young people who seek out the vegetarian lifestyle are most often thoughtful teenage girls who find the idea of eating animals offensive.

Children certainly can eat a vegetarian diet and remain healthy, perhaps in some cases healthier than their counterparts who consume high-fat, meat-heavy diets. The American Dietetic Association notes that vegetarians tend to have lower cholesterol and lower body mass indexes, as well as lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Remember, however, that keeping to a well-balanced vegetarian diet doesn't simply mean consuming salads and shunning meat. Parents and kids really need to inform themselves to ensure that their chosen diet will provide the proper amounts of nutrients needed by growing children and adolescents.

If your child wishes to follow a healthy vegetarian lifestyle, a formal visit to a registered dietitian can be a very helpful and informative way to begin. If such a visit is not feasible, then you've really got to work hard to educate yourself and your child.

A daily multivitamin with iron provides good back-up nutritional insurance for the child or adolescent who sticks to a vegetarian diet. But there's more to balanced nutrition than a pill.

The dietetic association summarizes updated recommendations for vegetarians in a nice overview available at (search "vegetarians"). American dietitians use a vegetarian food guide pyramid, while their Canadian colleagues have designed a vegetarian rainbow as visuals to stress the importance of eating a variety of foods within each of the nonmeat categories.

Fortified fruit and vegetable juices, dried fruit, and raw and cooked vegetables and fruits should all be selected to create a balanced vegetarian diet. Since meat is obviously not going to be included in such a diet, your vegetarian child also needs to rely on legumes (peas, beans, etc.), nuts, and soy and dairy products as alternate sources of protein.

If your child is following a strict vegan meal plan, she will be avoiding all animal products, including eggs and dairy, as well as meat. Vegans need to seek out several essential nutrients that otherwise will be missing from their diets. Fortified nondairy milks, some breakfast cereals and supplements can help provide calcium and the important vitamins B-12 and D.

Teenagers seriously considering a vegetarian lifestyle can visit the Children's Hospital Boston Web site at vegetarian.html for a user-friendly introduction, help with meal planning and links to related sites geared to the adolescent.

- Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

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