"Many people believe protein is a problem for vegetarians," says William Evers, associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University. "But it really isn't. If they drink milk and eat eggs and are getting nuts and beans, they'll be OK. You really have to go out of your way to be deficient in protein."
No matter why they choose to change their diets, there are some important health concerns when children and teens stop eating meat, Evers says. "Parents shouldn't worry their child is going to come down with some horrible nutritional deficiency," he says. "However, to be healthy, they must do more than just stop eating meat."
Other experts agree that a healthy vegetarian diet is possible during a child's growing years. "If you're not from a vegetarian culture, eating a vegetarian diet requires a lot of work," says Dr. Ronald Kleinman, pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard University and co-author of the recently published book "Let Them Eat Cake! The Case Against Controlling What Your Children Eat" (Villard Books, $19.95). "I recommend vitamin supplements for vegetarians. I never try to argue with a child that they're going to hurt their health if they adopt a vegetarian diet. Instead, I try to talk to them about nutrition and eating a variety of nutritious foods."
Vegetarianism appears to be an issue that teens and parents are grappling with more and more, says Sally Clinton, director of the Vegetarian Education Network, a nonprofit program based in Westchester, Pa. "There haven't been any studies done to determine just how much it's growing, but we're getting a sense that vegetarianism is a trend among teens," she says.
Evers says the biggest nutritional concerns in a vegetarian diet are vitamin B-12 and iron. Calcium also becomes a concern for vegans, those who do not eat any animal products including eggs and dairy products. Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat but still consume eggs and dairy products.
Evers recommends that vegetarians plan their diets to include foods that are rich in these hard-to-get vitamins and minerals, such as dark-green leafy vegetables. This may require some effort, but Evers says the nutritional payoffs are worth it.
"Use the Food Guide Pyramid and focus more on the dry beans instead of the meat," he says. "This will help to increase the consumption of iron."
Iron is an especially hard-to-get mineral for vegetarians, says John Beard, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Beard worked with a team of researchers from Purdue, Penn State and the University of Florida that studied iron loss in young women. The researchers recommend that adolescent and pre-adolescent vegetarians, both male and female, take a mineral supplement.
"Vegetarians need to provide for sufficient iron intake, and that mineral comes primarily from meat, fish and poultry," Beard says. "There are many iron compounds in grains and green leafy vegetables, but the iron is often not available for absorption. There's not an item that I can say 'eat this and you'll be fine.'"
Young women are especially at risk for iron deficiency because of growth and menstruation. Although both males and females lose iron, women tend to lose it faster and be at a greater risk for anemia, a condition marked by low levels of iron in the blood. The results of the study showed that girls who exercised and did not take a supplement lost more iron than those who took a supplement.
If parents are still concerned about their vegetarian child's health, a trip to the pediatrician can allay those fears.
"If they are growing reasonably for their age, then they're doing fine nutritionally," Evers says. "A pediatrician can tell you if they're growing right."
Sources: William Evers, (765) 494-8546; Internet, email@example.com
Dr. Ronald Kleinman, (617) 726-2930
John Beard, (814) 863-2917
Vegetarian Education Network, (717) 529-8638
Writer: Amanda King, (765) 494-8402
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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