Joan Lisanne Lange, M.D., F.A.A.P.

More children and teenagers than ever are following a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Sometimes kids “go veg” just because their parents do or because it’s part of their culture.  Some have decided they don’t want to eat cute furry animals anymore. Also, teenagers may be searching for a little bit of control over their lives by controlling their diet. Many celebrities are now following a vegetarian diet and this is helping to popularize it among young children.  Parents often wonder if this is a good choice for their child and worry that they may be missing out on vital nutrients. Chips and soda are technically vegetarian, but we all know that they are not healthy. With a little bit of planning, a vegetarian diet can be a very healthy and nutritionally adequate choice for every stage of life.  It has also can help prevent and treat certain diseases such as elevated cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes.  

When your child is on a vegetarian diet, these are some things that should be considered:

  1. PROTEIN:  Most vegetarians are afraid of not getting enough protein. And some new vegetarians make the mistake of overcompensating because of this fear.  This can inadvertently lead to a diet too high in saturated fat and calories. A plant-based diet can easily satisfy protein requirements and provide all essential amino acids.  Ovo-lacto vegetarians (those who avoid meat but continue to consume dairy and eggs) will find it very easy to meet their protein needs.  Good sources for vegans (who avoid animal products completely) are beans, tofu, legumes, nuts, nut butters, seeds and whole grains.
  2. IRON: A diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts will also provide adequate iron.  Broccoli, Swiss chard, and other dark green leafy vegetables are rich in iron. Many cereals and grains are now iron-fortified. Vitamin C, found in orange juice will enhance the absorption of iron from other foods, while dairy products are extremely low in iron and may interfere with iron absorption, especially in very young children.
  3. VITAMIN B12: This is found naturally only in animal products.  It is important for healthy nerves and blood.  Ovo-lacto vegetarians will find sources in eggs and dairy, but strict vegans will need to take a supplement. 
  4. OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS: These are often called “good fats” and are important for brain and nervous system development. They are found in fish, but there are several plant sources as well, such as flax, walnuts and soybeans. 

If your child is considering a vegetarian or vegan diet, there is no need to panic.  It is easier than you think.  Try to look for foods that look familiar to them such as peanut butter and jelly, veggie burgers, fruit smoothies, or vegetarian soups. If this new lifestyle is their choice, help them “own the decision” by coming up with some healthy alternatives to meat products.  Let them go to the grocery store with you and pick out a new food to try each week. Don’t be afraid to ask some advice from a nutritionist or your pediatrician.  With a little bit of effort and some help from you, they will be on their way to a healthy diet and a healthy life.