In a recent visit, I asked a patient what she wanted to be when she grew up and she very quickly responded “a vegetarian.” It was not exactly the answer I expected, but I wasn’t surprised either. Questions about becoming vegetarian are becoming more and more common in check-ups these days, for both boys and girls in middle and high school. Those with toddlers who are reading this may be wondering when their kid will ever want to eat any vegetables, but those whose kids are experimenting with vegetarianism wonder how to best support their child’s decisions, how best to adapt as a family and how to make sure their child continues to have balanced nutrition.
First, it is important to understand why your child wants to be a vegetarian. My patient’s reasoning was that it would “keep her healthy and is nicer to animals.” More and more studies are coming out that indeed show that plant-based diets are healthier for many people, better for the environment and of course for animal welfare. Whatever their reasoning, kids and teens cannot simply cut meat out without making other adjustments so that they can continue to eat an appropriate mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats as well as the vitamins and minerals they need. Often protein and iron are the two biggest concerns that families have, but depending on what type of vegetarian they want to be, they will need to pay close attention to other nutritional requirements as well. Here are the most common types of vegetarian diets:
- Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, are included.
- Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but allow eggs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs.
- Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish.
- Vegan diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products — and foods that contain these products.
- Flexitarian diets are primarily a plant-based diet but include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities.
Of these types, flexitarian diets tend to be the easiest to manage as they are somewhat of a “happy medium” whereas veganism in children really requires close monitoring to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Many of these diets will require the child to be more adventurous in their eating as they will have to eat foods that are not generally considered “kid-friendly.” They can’t just eat fruits, veggies and mac and cheese, which some might opt for. Kids Health lists these required nutrients and some of their best food sources:
- vitamin B12: dairy products, eggs, and vitamin-fortified products, such as cereals, breads, and soy and rice drinks and nutritional yeast
- vitamin D: milk, vitamin D-fortified orange juice and other vitamin D-fortified products
- calcium: dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried beans, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks and cereals
- protein: dairy products, eggs, tofu and other soy products, dried beans and nuts
- iron: eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and iron-fortified cereals and bread
- zinc: wheat germ, nuts, fortified cereal, dried beans and pumpkin seeds
When a child is on any special diet (even just an extremely picky one), it is a good idea to start them on a multivitamin that offers 100% of the recommended daily intake of key vitamins and nutrients. If you have questions about supplements, please feel free to ask us or refer to our article on the subject here.
As your family adjusts to having a vegetarian child, if you’re not all ready to join in quite yet, it can be helpful to at least have meat-free days for everyone at home. If the child is old enough, have them be in charge of cooking some vegetarian recipes. Be patient and flexible, and try to have fun with meals. Most importantly, with any dietary changes, try to keep the big picture in mind. It is of course important to make sure that your family is fueled with nutritious foods at home, but it’s equally if not more important to help teach them about their food choices so they can make healthy decisions when they’re not at home. As always, let us know if we can help!
Jacqueline Phillips, MD, April 1, 2022