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Meeting Vegetarian Kids' Nutritional Needs

Whether tots or teens, children on meatless diets must get protein, calcium and other key substances--or risk health problems.


Fourteen years later, Kevin McDuff still remembers the criticism he faced when people learned he was going to raise his infant daughter as a vegetarian, like himself.

"The biggest question was, 'Why are you forcing this on her?' " says the 46-year-old Granada Hills computer consultant. The second-biggest question, he says, was, "Is she getting everything she needs?"

The questions, though personal, reflected valid concerns.

High-fiber, low-fat diets, which are perfectly healthy for parents, may shortchange their children. Kids need more fat and less fiber than adults do, in addition to more calcium and protein per pound than adults.

Although meat and dairy products may have a few not-so-healthy qualities, namely saturated fats and high calories, they also have essential nutrients that are harder to come by in the plant kingdom. Without those nutrients, kids' health and development may be permanently impaired.

McDuff says his daughter's nutritional needs were met with dairy products and eggs. Both she and a second child, born 15 months ago, are growing just fine.

"A good lacto-ovo vegetarian diet [one that includes dairy and eggs] is a perfectly healthy way to raise children," says Dennis Bier, pediatrician and director of the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Vegan diets, however, put children at more risk."

Strictly speaking, a vegetarian never eats meat, poultry or fish. According to a January poll sponsored by the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, 2.5% of the U.S. population qualify as true vegetarians. (A great many more are partial vegetarians, who eat some chicken or fish.) About a third of vegetarians are vegans, who avoid all animal products, including dairy foods and eggs.

Of the reasons people become vegetarians, half cite health reasons, the other half ethics, says Vegetarian Times editor Suzanne Gerber. And teens represent the fastest-growing segment of the vegetarian community.

"Many [teens] are motivated by the desire to be thin in a healthy way; others are responding to their increased sensitivity to animals," Gerber says.

Regardless of whether the young vegetarian is a teen declaring independence or a tot going with the family flow, parents raising vegetarian kids--especially vegans--need to make an extra effort to get the substances more prevalent in animal-based foods.

Kids need calcium and vitamin D for strong bones, protein and zinc for growth, and iron and B12 for healthy blood. A diet deficient in any of these is not healthy for anyone but can take a permanent toll on a child's body. A lapse during a particular window of development could have serious, irreversible consequences.

If the child does not eat dairy products or eggs, then parents can meet protein needs with soy products, like tofu. Other non-meat protein sources include legumes (including beans), nuts, peanut butter and tahini.

Remember, too, that kids need more calories and protein per pound of body weight than adults do, Bier says. The bulk often present in vegetarian diets can compromise calories.

Brown rice, beans and vegetables, although nutritious, are not calorie dense and can fill up kids before they get the calories they need, says Mindy Hermann, a registered dietitian in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., who writes a nutrition column for Child magazine.

Slip in calorie-dense foods and cut back on fiber, she recommends. Add foods like avocado, bean curd, nut butters, olive oils and tofu. Parents can also pare away some of the fiber by giving kids refined grain and peeling fruits and vegetables.

Calcium is especially important for kids between the ages of 8 and 17, when bones are under construction, Bier says. Kids who eliminate dairy--whether they're vegetarians or lactose intolerant--can get their calcium from certain calcium-rich vegetables, including kale, bok choy, broccoli and spinach.

If your child balks at bok choy, an easier way to meet his or her calcium needs would be through calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk (it also comes in chocolate). Soy ice cream, soy yogurt and soy cheese are also rich and readily available sources.

Fortified soy milk will take care of a young vegan's vitamin D and B12 requirements, Hermann says. And to be sure kids get enough iron and zinc, serve fortified cereals. Astute label readers can find added iron in enriched grains, bread and rice products.

Finally, to cover their bases, parents should give kids a daily multivitamin, Hermann recommends. Most drug and health food stores carry vitamin supplements specifically designed for vegans and vegetarians; they include iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins D and B12.

Parents of vegetarian kids--like all parents--need to keep a close eye on their child's development. Blood tests can reveal certain deficiencies, but the gold standard for judging nutrition is growth.

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