These days, plants are big. More than ever, mainstream grocery chains make it relatively easy for those who embrace a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle — or the 47 percent of Americans who eat at least one vegetarian meal a week — to find a variety of meal choices on a nearby shelf. This is good news for the 7.3 million adults who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
But imagine a world where American kids eschew hamburgers, refuse McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and say no to meatballs. Completely.
According to the most recent poll on youth and vegetarianism conducted in 2010, The Vegetarian Resource Group found an estimated 1.4 million youth in the U.S. are vegetarian, and some 3 million American kids never eat meat.
That’s about 3 percent of U.S. youth who said they never eat meat, poultry, and fish or seafood. And one third of these vegetarians — about 1 percent of America’s young people — never eat dairy, eggs, and honey. They are vegans.
Sure, some kids live with vegetarian parents and naturally embrace the choice, or have no other option. But others have their own reasons.
“A lot of children give up eating meat because of animal rights,” said Deanna Schweighardt, a registered dietitian at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey. “There’s nothing wrong with becoming a vegetarian or vegan. It’s actually a healthy way of eating. You just have to look at the overall picture. Is your child getting enough protein? What about iron and B vitamins, and especially B 12?”
Schweighardt said many young vegetarians starting out by eating a lot of eggs and dairy.
“Eggs are a perfect protein,” she said, “but children need to eat vegetables, beans and nuts. Beans and nuts are good protein sources.”
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Schweighardt’s daughter gave up meat when she was a teenager. She’s still a vegetarian now in her early 20s.
“I just wanted her to make sure she was getting five servings of vegetables a day,” said her mother. “She also ate a lot of peanut butter, nuts, seeds and tofu.”
[lz_bulleted_list title=”Protein Sources for Non-Meat Eaters” source=”webmd.com“]Eggs|Beans and legumes|Nuts and Nut Butters|Grains such as quinoa, amaranth and kamut|Greek yogurt|Protein drinks or bars [/lz_bulleted_list]
Most children become interested in a vegetarian lifestyle at age 11 or 12, Schweighardt said.
“If they are younger, it’s because their parents are vegan or vegetarian and are raising their children that way,” she said.
The Nutrients Kids Need
Still, parents worry about their children not getting essential vitamins like B 12 and iron.
“Vegan children can be deficient in vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly B 12,” said Helen Wilcock, a pediatric dietician and member of the British Dietetic Association.
She explained the most challenging time for parents of vegan children is when they are under 5 and when girls reach puberty. That’s when iron levels can drop.
Schweighardt, along with Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based Virginia Messina, a nutrition consultant for Farm Sanctuary’s “V-lish” website, believe that diets built around plant foods are associated with better heart health and a healthier body weight.
“Vegetarian kids have higher intakes of certain nutrients like potassium, which are linked to improved bone health and lower blood pressure,” Messina said. “Generally, on a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, we can expect to see the same benefits that we see in vegetarian and vegan adults — higher intakes of fiber and healthy fats and lower intakes of saturated fats.
“Older research suggests some vegan children had calcium intakes that were too low,” Messina said. “But meeting calcium needs is much easier now than it used to be, given the availability of calcium-fortified plant milks (almond, soy, and coconut milks) and yogurts. The fact that much better information is available for vegans makes it easier to plan healthy meals for vegan kids.”
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Not to mention all those grocery stores that are catering more and more to a plant-based lifestyle. But what about protein? Not to worry, said Messina.
“Vegetarian children seem to meet protein needs with ease. And what little information we have on vegans suggests that they do, too. As with adults, it’s important to include several servings per day of legumes in the diets of vegan children. Even if kids turn their noses up at beans, there are plenty of options like tofu, veggie burgers and peanut butter,” she said.
“We know that (children) are eating more fiber and less saturated fat and that they often have higher intakes of nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and vitamin A. They are no more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia than meat-eating children.”
Parents of vegan children do need to pay attention to vitamin B 12 (which needs to be supplemented in vegan diets) and to calcium, Messina cautioned. Children can get their daily requirement of B 12 by drinking almond, coconut or soy milk fortified with B 12.
Schweighardt encourages parents to have their children cook with them.
“Go grocery shopping with them, and let them prepare a meal,” she said. “YouTube has many tempting and easy to make vegetarian and vegan recipes that you and your child can follow.”