Can children thrive on a vegetarian diet?

By Dr. Ruchi Kaushik
General Pediatrics
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

Because of the recent increase in obesity incidence and a desire to improve cardiovascular health, many families have developed an interest in vegetarian diets; however, parents often fear that with a diet restriction, they may not be able to meet the nutritional needs of their children. I currently am raising three, young lacto-ovo-vegetarians and assert that, with knowledge and creativity, parents can ensure the normal nourishment and growth of their child. Indeed, studies have shown that with vegetarian diets children may still attain normal weights and heights.

Definitions
Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. Those who do consume eggs and dairy products are lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs. And vegans only consume plant foods. Although a well-varied diet can be sufficient for all types of vegetarians, without close monitoring of food selection, vegan children may be at risk for a nutritional deficiency.

Nutrition and Supplementation
Ensuring sufficient intake of protein, iron, and certain vitamins is vital in balancing the vegetarian diet. Protein sources may include soy, lentils, beans, and nuts. Dairy and eggs also provide protein but are restricted in the vegan diet. Combining two sources of protein, such as a grain (wheat or rice) with legumes (beans or lentils) makes certain that all essential amino acids are being consumed. Soy alone is a complete protein and can be found in forms more familiar to your child (nuggets, veggie burgers, sausage patties) in the frozen food section of your grocery store.

In addition to meat products, iron may be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, and lentils. Iron is better absorbed when consumed along with a food rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, tomatoes, or orange juice. Vitamin B-12 may be present in adequate amounts in foods fortified with this vitamin and in dairy products. Vitamin D and calcium can be taken in sufficient amounts with dairy products, but if your child is vegan, she may need to take a daily supplement.

When to Worry
If you have concerns about your child’s growth, consult with your pediatrician to assess her height, weight, and BMI and to discuss food choices and the need for vitamin/mineral supplementation. Also, teens often adopt vegetarian diets and, in conjunction with other symptoms, this may be a subtle sign of an eating disorder.  If you fear this may be the case, consult with your pediatrician.

By and large, vegetarian diets can be nourishing and healthy. Reading labels and closely monitoring what is eaten by your child is essential. I often joke with my patients that Doritos and chocolate cake are vegetarian!  For more information about vegetarian diets, visit www.healthychildren.org.

If you or your children want to adopt a vegetarian diet for your family, talk to your pediatrician. If you need to find a pediatrician in San Antonio, visit our website at www.chofsa.org/findadoc

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