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Can vegetarian kid get proper nutrition?

Published On: Mar 20 2012 01:38:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 29 2013 10:38:02 AM CDT
Girl gardening vegetables

iStockphoto / johnnyscriv

By Darlene Dunn, Contributing writer

Stephanie Elliot's 9-year-old daughter is a vegetarian by happenstance, she says.

"What I mean is she hates meat -- won't even try it -- so getting her to have the protein she needs in her diet is extremely challenging," Elliot says. "I would do anything for her to eat even a chicken nugget."

A new trend shows that a growing number of youth are choosing to follow a vegetarian diet. The latest figures show that 1 in 200 children is a vegetarian.

Like Elliot, many parents may have concerns about whether following a vegetarian lifestyle is appropriate for a growing child.

Tara Gidus, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, says there is no need for parents to fret. "A young person can get all of the nutrition they need with a carefully planned vegetarian diet," Gidus says.

Where To Get Protein

Gidus recommends that a source of protein is consumed at every meal, however.

"At breakfast, you could have soy milk or regular milk and some walnuts on your cereal. For lunch, you could have a bean burrito or some soy pepperoni on a salad," she says. "For dinner, (have) a veggie burger or grilled tofu."

She also encourages consuming 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables and 6 or more servings of grains every day. Grains include any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal or barley.

While protein may be at forefront of most parents' minds, Gidus says it is also important that the child gets all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids that they need.

Gidus says a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if not properly balanced.

"Many people simply cut meat out and don't replace it with vegetarian sources of proteins," she says. "Or they choose grilled cheese sandwiches, French fries, or cheese pizza frequently. Just like people who eat meat, it comes down to all choices you make in your diet to determine how healthy your diet is."

Gidus adds that vegetarians should take a B complex vitamin, because vitamin B12 is often hard for them to get.

She also says parents should make sure that young people add soy-based or legume-based foods into your diet to ensure that they get the amino acids, vitamins and minerals they may be missing with meat.

OK For Growing Bodies?

Elliot, who is also parenting editor for www.bettyconfidential, says it is OK for young people to follow a vegetarian diet if they are in general good health and have gotten clearance from a pediatrician.

Elliot's daughter gets the protein she needs through peanut butter sandwiches and milk in the mornings.

"She's healthy, thank goodness, but I do worry about her diet every single day," Elliot says.

Elliot says she believes following a vegetarian diet is healthier than one that includes meat.

"The child is most likely eliminating packaged foods and, hopefully, a lot of unnecessary sugar products that most kids eat today," Elliot says.

Additionally, it may be viewed as a "hip or cool thing to do."

"Overindulgence of meat causes clogged arteries and heart attacks -- isn't that what we've always heard? So to stop eating meat is supposed to make us feel like we're doing something good for ourselves," Elliot says.

Why, Why, Why

Elliot says there are a number of reasons, such as peer pressure, that young people choose a vegetarian lifestyle.

"Some probably do it because of their love for animals. Some do it because they are mad at their parents. Some do it because they truly do not like meat," she says. "And some do it because they have done their homework and think this is a good diet choice for them. It really depends on the age and maturity level of the person or youth who is going vegetarian."

Gidus adds that it is important for parents to be supportive of their child's decision.

"Ask them why they want to become a vegetarian and what you can do to support them," she says. "You can search for recipes together, go grocery shopping, and make meal planning a fun new family activity."

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