About 1 in 200 young Americans are vegetarians, according to the first government study to provide a nationwide estimate of how many children eat meat.
The new estimate comes from a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of thousands of Americans in 2007. The study used surveys to gather information about the eating habits of children and teens from about 9,000 parents or guardians.
The survey found that about 367,000 US children are vegetarians ““ meaning their diet consists of no meat. Other surveys suggest the rate could be four to six times that among older teens who have more control over what they eat than young children do.
Many children are prompted to turn down meat after learning about the slaughter process of many animals for food.
“Compassion for animals is the major, major reason,” Richard Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, an organization with a newsletter mailing list of about 800, told the Associated Press. “When kids find out the things they are eating are living animals – and if they have a pet….”
Nichole Nightingale, 14, was exposed to a YouTube video that showed the graphic details of how chickens are slaughtered for meat. The letter ended with an invitation to visit the Web site of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for more information.
This information prompted Nightingale to become a vegan ““ meaning she consumes no animal meat or animal products such as eggs or milk.
“A lot more kids are using the Internet. They’re curious about stuff and trying to become independent and they’re trying to find out who they are,” she said.
Previous studies have shown that vegetarians are more often females from higher-income families.
“Vegetarian doesn’t mean low-calorie,” said Dr. Christopher Bolling, who directs weight management research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He said roughly 10 to 15 percent of the overweight kids who come to his medical center’s weight loss program have tried a vegetarian diet at some point before starting the program.
However, vegetarian diets can be very healthy, although typical vegetarian diets miss out on key nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium mostly obtained from meat.
Experts say this highlights the need for children who want to be vegetarians to discover non-meat options that will still provide them with the proper amount of nutrients.
These options include soybeans, fortified soy milk and nuts, which can be good sources of protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D.
Dr. David Ludwig of Children’s Hospital Boston, a specialist in pediatric nutrition, told AP that vegetarian diets for children are very feasible, but vegan diets can be much tougher.
“It really requires much more attention to avoid nutrient deficiencies,” Ludwig said.
As children age, the amount of protein needed in their diets continues to increase.
The CDC offers certain alternatives including legumes (dry beans and peas), tofu, nuts and seeds, grains and some fruits and vegetables that include important sources of protein.
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