What happens when your child says, "I want to be a vegetarian!"?
First, don't worry! Your child isn't alone. Interest in vegetarianism, or in eating less meat in general, is on the rise in the US, fueled by positive health studies, animal rights, environmental concerns, and even popular culture. However, your child may show interest in cutting out meat for less complicated reasons, with taste, texture or a love of animals as distinct possibilities. Whatever the reason, you may have concerns that your child could miss out on vital nutrients by omitting meat from the menu. The good news is that with some education and training, your child can easily meet or exceed recommended nutrient allowances.
Types of Plant-Based Diets
First, how do we define a vegetarian? Typically, a vegetarian will choose to omit meat from the diet, while still choosing to eat other animal products such as eggs and dairy. Vegetarians can be broken down into some common categories:
Lacto-ovo: No meat; Yes to eggs, dairy
Lacto: No meat, No eggs; Yes to dairy
Pescatarian: No to cow, poultry or pig; Yes to eggs, dairy, and fish
Vegan: No animal products whatsoever
Adequate protein intake is less of an issue than we may be inclined to think. Plant sources of protein include legumes (beans, soy); nuts (cashews, almonds); seeds (sesame, sunflower); whole grains (quinoa, brown rice); and even plain vegetables (5g in a cup of cooked spinach!). Of course, many vegetarians choose to get protein from animal sources such as eggs, dairy, whey or fish. The key to eating plant proteins is variety, allowing for complete proteins to be formed from multiple sources.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If your child chooses not to eat fish, ensuring that enough omega-3’s are consumed is worth some attention. There are omega-3 fatty acid plant sources; however, the body uses them less efficiently, necessitating a higher intake than from animal sources. Some good plant sources include flax, chia and walnuts.
Iron from plant sources is less efficiently absorbed in the body than from animal sources, and thus deserves some special attention. Where iron gets a little more complicated is in its interaction with other nutrients in the body. Vitamin C promotes non-heme iron absorption in the body, while phytates, calcium and polyphenolics act as inhibitors. Luckily, plant sources of iron also tend to contain high amounts of vitamin C. Such sources include spinach, broccoli, fortified grains, soy and squash.
Zinc is another nutrient inhibited by phytates. Because vegetarians tend to ingest more phytic acid than omnivores, some have argued that zinc absorption may be affected. However, according to theAcademy of Nutrition and Dietetics, distinct zinc deficiencies in western vegetarians have not been documented. Some of the best plant sources of zinc include soy, legumes, seeds and nuts.
Plant vs animal sources of calcium are a significant point of contention in current nutrition science. While calcium appears to be more plentiful in animal products, it has been argued that they may not be the best source. Broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, legumes, tofu and whole grains are just some plant sources of calcium. Most vegetarians are happy to drink milk, a significant source of calcium, but milk should be considered just one tool in the arsenal and doesn't have to be the primary source of your child's calcium.
This vitamin is the most difficult to obtain naturally for vegans, but is not a significant concern for vegetarians who consume fortified products. B12 generally can only be found in animal products, the highest concentrations found in meat. B12 is a critical nutrient for brain function, and is so important that your body stores enough serum B12 to go without it for about 2 years. Because of this, some with very restricted diets will see no negative effects for years. In addition to animal sources such as eggs and cheese, vegetarians can get their b12 from fortified products and supplements.
No matter what type of diet your child follows, eating mindfully is always the goal. The important takeaway here is to see that while it may seem that different nutrients necessitate including different ingredients in order to remain nutritionally balanced, maintaining a varied diet with food from different groups each day is more than likely to cover your bases. You may want to alert your pediatrician to your child's current diet; this will allow your doctor to make proper recommendations, up to and including periodic blood tests for blood nutrient content.
Above all, encourage your child to explore this lifestyle by shopping at the farmers market together and cooking vegetable centric recipes. We've included a few of our favorite vegetarian recipes that are super easy to cook with kids below. Here's to eating more veggies this season!