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Raising Vegetarian Kids

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

A vegetarian diet for children may raise parental concerns about nutrition and health. But an expert says children who eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet can get all the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy.

When parents hear their child announce, "Mom, Dad…I've decided to become a vegetarian," they may suspect this isn't a wise or healthy choice. Will my child get enough calories for growth? What about protein? Calcium? Iron?

Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, says not to worry. A child who decides to go vegetarian can eat a well-balanced, satisfying, nutritious and healthy diet.

Politi says the majority of vegetarians fall into one of two main categories.

"You can be a lacto-ovo vegetarian. This means you don't eat meat or poultry or fish, but you do eat dairy products and eggs, which we know are excellent sources of protein. The other main category is vegan, in which you don't eat any food of an animal nature. Vegans eat only plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts. Both types of diets can be perfectly well-balanced, but they need a little more careful planning than if you eat a wider range of foods."

"The key is to have good variety in the diet," says Politi. "First, it's good to look at foods that are concentrated sources of calories and protein. If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, this will include your dairy products and eggs. Nuts are calorie-dense and appropriate for both lacto-ovo diets and vegan diets. Soy products and vegetables are good non-animal sources of protein. Peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, fruit and nuts are popular choices for kids who don't eat meat, seafood or poultry.

"Also, pay attention to avoid iron-deficiency anemia, which is prevalent among children but doesn't seem to be more prevalent among vegetarian children than among non-vegetarians. Good sources or iron for a kid who does not consume meat products could be iron-fortified cereals, grains, dried fruits and nuts."

In addition to protein and iron, kids also need calcium to promote bone health, says Politi.

"With regard to the calcium requirement, I think that's a concern for everyone, not only vegetarians. In this country, we consume only about half the calcium recommended by major health organizations. I would recommend two or three glasses of milk a day for a child who is lacto-ovo vegetarian. For a vegan, I would recommend soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice.

I also recommend good sources of Vitamin D, since studies have shown that, especially in the winter, when we don't get enough Vitamin D from sunshine, we can tend to be deficient. Children can get Vitamin D from milk or from a multi-vitamin supplement.

"I also think that parents who are raising vegetarian children are concerned about calories. We want children to get enough calories for growth. When you eat a lot of plant-based food, it tends to be high in fiber and really bulky, and therefore kids might not consume enough calories."

Politi also says parents should keep in mind the health benefits of vegetarian diets. "Studies show that vegetarians tend to have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, colon cancer and diabetes. So we know that eating vegetarian can have a lot of advantages."

The bottom line, says Politi, is that raising vegetarian kids is not difficult. With some research and planning, parents can help kids eat a diet that is adequate, satisfying and nutritious. She adds that such diets also provide proven, life-long health benefits.

"Studies show that vegetarians, at least in this country, tend to have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, colon cancer and diabetes. We know that eating vegetarian can have a lot of advantages."

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