Vegetarian kids: They’re not so rare

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Are you one of the growing number of meat-eating families with a youngster who suddenly shuns animal products? Young vegetarians seem to be sprouting up among the carnivores more and more. While a child’s motivation for avoiding animal products may be different than those of adults, your kids’ concerns are, nevertheless, very real to them. 
All too often, the new vegetarian simply skips the meat-based main course and only eats side dishes. But if the eating pattern continues, there can be a physical toll in terms of well-being and growth. 
The nutrients that can be in short supply, for example, depend on the type of vegetarian food style. For example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian (a person who still eats dairy products and eggs) has less protein replacement concerns than a vegan, who eats no animal products at all. 

Why eat meat anyway?

  • Protein. Protein and amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are needed for a variety of functions, including helping muscles grow and repair so it’s especially important that children get the recommended levels. Luckily, meat and other animal products are not the only source of protein. Legumes, soyfoods, whole grains (in particular quinoa), nuts and seeds along with dairy products and eggs, all contribute to protein totals. 
  • Iron. This mineral helps carry oxygen through the blood to other parts of the body. Low levels can leave youngsters feeling tired, irritable and less able to participate in physical activities. Green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, whole or enriched grains and dried fruits all contain the mineral but for maximum absorption, they should be eaten along with a vitamin C-rich choice such as citrus fruits, berries, peppers and kiwis. 
  • Calcium. For vegetarians who do not consume dairy products, keep an eye on calcium consumption. Using fortified soy, almond or rice milk can provide similar amounts of calcium to cow’s milk but check the label to ensure that the product is indeed fortified. 
  • Zinc. This mineral can be found in legumes, whole grains, nuts and dairy products. Research shows that cooking with onions or garlic increases the absorption of both zinc and iron from plant foods. 
Getting your kids to eat the key nutrient-rich alternatives can be a tough task. Encourage them to be involved in food preparation and they’ll be more likely to dig in. For example, if they’re not fans of legumes such as chickpeas or kidney beans, whip up some dips together or add puréed beans to a pasta sauce. With the increasing number of meat substitutes on store shelves, it’s easy to keep some on hand for quick meals. Remember to be label savvy – some products are chock full of sodium and are best avoided. 

A matter of appetite

Vegetarian diets can have an impact on kids at both ends of the weight spectrum. Those with small appetites may find it difficult to consume high-fibre options that would provide an adequate number of calories for their growing bodies. Nuts and seeds containing fat (and their butters, which don’t pose a choking hazard in small children), as well as avocados and oils, are all sources of more concentrated calories and can help boost totals. Children who tend towards being overweight, but opt to skip the protein-rich part of the meal, can end up hungry and therefore with an increased appetite. For these kids, it’s important to balance the meal by including meat alternatives such as soyfoods and legumes along with high fibre choices.

Supplements to consider for vegetarian kids

Vitamin D, a.k.a. the sunshine vitamin, is in short supply even for Canadians who eat from all food groups. Many experts recommend taking a supplements of 1,000 IU daily, a safe amount for children.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in only animal products, so vegans should take a B12 supplement or consume foods that are fortified with this vitamin. 
Omega-3 fats, particularly DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) which are found in cold water fish, are critical for learning and behaviour in young children. These fats are found in some eggs (check labels). Look for supplements, which contain omega-3s from algae for vegans.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods (Viking Canada). You can find her on Twitter @rosieschwartz.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012

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