When Kids Go Vegetarian
By Susan Hansen, Extension Educator,
You thought it wouldn’t happen - but it did. Your 14 year old daughter came home from school and proudly announced, “I’m going vegetarian!”
Whatever the reasons youth are choosing to eat vegetarian diets, there are a few things to know about these diets. First, not all vegetarian diets are the same. For example, lacto-ovo-vegetarian eating patterns allow for both milk products and eggs to be eaten with grains, vegetables, fruits, dry beans and peas, seed and nuts. Meats, fish and poultry products are excluded from this diet.
Lacto-vegetarians exclude eggs from their diets. Other vegetarians allow some fish and chicken in their eating patterns, but no other meat products.
Vegan is the strictest type of vegetarian eating pattern because it doesn’t allow animal products of any kind. Processed and prepared foods that have animal ingredients such as gelatin or whey also are excluded.
Well-planned vegetarian diets can meet nutrient needs but the more restrictive the diet, the more difficult it will be to obtain all the nutrients from foods. In some cases, supplements may be advised if the diet is very restrictive.
Many of the nutrients that are at risk in the more restrictive diets are easier to obtain with a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet. For example, calcium will come from milk products, green, leafy vegetables and dry beans. Vitamin B12 comes only in animal product and will be present in the milk products and eggs that are included.
If the diet eliminates all animal food products, including milk and eggs, both calcium and vitamin B12 could be extremely low in the diet. Fortified plant foods such as cereals and soy milk might then become the best source for vitamin B12. Calcium sources could come from green leafy vegetables, broccoli and some other plant foods. Care in planning meals will be needed to make that happen. Also, sources of dietary iron and zinc could be limited in completely plant-based eating patterns. Both of these minerals are found in small amounts in plant foods but they are not easily absorbed by the body or other food factors interfere with their use in the body.
Each of the mentioned nutrients are especially critical during the growth phases of childhood and adolescence. When your child announces that he or she is “going vegetarian,” ask about the kinds of foods that will be included in his or her meals. If food choices will be too restrictive for growth and maintenance, it will be time to discuss careful diet planning and ways to include foods that will be important for their overall health.
Recommendations for daily servings include:
- 6-11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta (make half those servings whole grains);
- 5 servings of vegetables;
- 4 servings of fruit;
- 3 servings of milk, yogurt, cheese, tofu or fortified soy milk;
- 2-3 servings of dry beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat substitute.
- Fats, oils and sweets are to be used sparingly.
Vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate when appropriately planned. The challenge is to focus on careful planning.
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