Understanding vegetarianism

Children may choose to become vegetarian for many reasons: cultural norm, a relative or friend is a vegetarian, weight loss, health reasons, concern about animal rights, etc. But what if you're concerned your child may not get the proper nutrition needed for healthy growth and development? Don't fret — vegetarianism can be healthy because of the high intake of plant products.

There are several types of vegetarians:
Octo-vegetarian: eats eggs, no meat
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats dairy and eggs, no meat
Lacto-vegetarian: eats dairy products, no meat or eggs
Vegan: eats only food from plant sources

Some people eliminate red meat and continue to eat poultry, fish, eggs and dairy.

Maintaining Nutrition
If your child is a vegetarian, it is important to ensure he consumes adequate calories and nutrients needed for growth. Most vegetarian diets are high in fruits and vegetables, which are high in fiber, various vitamins and minerals, and low in fat. Nutrients mainly derived from animal sources, such as calcium, protein, iron, vitamins B12 and D, and zinc, need to be monitored closely. Many cereals, breads and drinks are fortified with these nutrients, making it easier to ensure your child's nutritional needs are met. Aim to incorporate the foods listed below into your child's daily diet to avoid nutrient deficiencies.

Benefits: healthy bones and teeth
Sources: dairy products
dark-green, leafy vegetablesbroccoli

dried beans
products fortified with calcium: orange juice, soy and rice drinks, cereals

Benefits: provides energy, maintain healthy hair and nails
Sources: dairy products: cottage cheese, yogurt

Benefits: carries oxygen to blood cells, red blood cell production, metabolism
Sources: eggs
  dried beans
  dried fruit
  green leafy vegetables
  iron-fortified breads and cereals

Vitamin B12
Benefits: relieves fatigue, cell maintenance, DNA formation, control cholesterol levels
Sources: dairy products
fortified products: cereals, breads, soy and rice drinks

Vitamin D
Benefits: maintains strong bones
Sources: milk
orange juice fortified with vitamin D

Benefits: wound healing, healing chronic infections, healthy skin
Sources: wheat germ
fortified cereal
dried beans
pumpkin seeds

Depending on your child's age, proper nutrition may be a challenge. Consuming a diet of mainly vegetables can be difficult for a little stomach to handle because of the high amounts of fiber. Vitamin and/or mineral supplementation may be necessary for children whose diets do not provide adequate nutrients.

Talk with your children about healthy vegetarian food options — beans, fruit, vegetables, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — as they may not know what foods are acceptable for a vegetarian to eat. French fries, candy and sweetened beverages are animal-free products, but they are not healthy choices. As with any healthy diet, variety is important as well as eating foods from all the food groups. With careful planning, a vegetarian diet can be a healthy way of eating for any child.

Rachel Sestrich has been a registered and licensed dietitian since 2007. Currently, Rachel is working in research and lives in St. Louis with her husband and two young girls.