Vegetarianism means different things to different people. But to parents of at least two sorts, it can mean a challenge.
People brought up as meat-eaters who became vegetarians as adults may need guidance in ensuring that their young children are properly fed.
And parents of a child, usually a teen-ager, who suddenly declares her or his body a meat-free zone may need some help, too.
In both cases, what’s important is that the child’s nutritional needs are met. As long as parents and children agree on that goal, vegetarianism can be the ticket to exploring a wide variety of wholesome foods.
The less meat you eat, the more foods with complex carbohydrates you should add to your diet, said nutritionist Patricia Johnston, associate dean at Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California. These include legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Most of these foods also contribute protein to the diet.
Getting sufficient protein as a vegetarian is a “non-issue,” Johnston said, assuming the meat isn’t being replaced with, say, doughnuts. Nor is it necessary to match foods like rice and beans in each meal to get all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) you need.
Nonetheless, “the more foods you eliminate from the diet,” she said, “the more care has to be taken to plan” a balanced diet.
“The more restrictive you are, the more likely you are to have deficiencies,” agreed Linda Gay, a dietitian at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
Vegetarians who abstain from eggs and dairy products are called vegans (VEE-gans). “If you had a young child on that diet, it would have to be well planned,” Gay said. Consulting with a nutritionist would be advisable.
Such a diet “tends to have lots of unprocessed foods, things like beans, salads, etc., that are not calorically dense,” Gay continued. “Kids might get full before they’ve gotten enough calories. They would have to be willing to take a number of foods to get adequate protein.”
Also of primary concern in a vegan diet are vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium and zinc. The younger a child is, the more injurious an insufficiency can be.
Insufficient B-12 in the diets of infants can do permanent neurological injury, Johnston said. Insufficient calcium can lead to osteoporosis.
Fortified soy beverages, tofu and fortified cereals can help. A daily tablet that supplies the essential minimum of vitamins and minerals might be good insurance.
If the child drinks milk, Gay said, “it’s a lot easier. In milk you have calcium, protein, vitamin D and B-12; that takes care of the whole thing.” (Infants under the age of 1 should be on breast milk or formula.)
Generally speaking, Gay said, vegans don’t get enough calcium. Johnston said she recently completed a study of pre-menopausal adult women in which the vegans had lower bone density than the other women.
And most teen-agers don’t get enough calcium to begin with, Gay added. “A lot of times girls will see giving up milk as a way to cut down on calories … and of course that can affect their bones later in life,” she said.
Sometimes a teen-ager who declares himself or herself a vegetarian is really determined simply to eat as little as possible. If “giving up meat” is really a disguise for “giving up eating,” that is cause for concern.
Still, parents should look at the positives. Vegetarians probably eat a more wholesome diet than most Americans; they get lots of antioxidants, less saturated fat and plenty of fiber.
Peaceful coexistence with a new vegetarian may be the best policy. “Food fights are really nonwinnable,” Johnston said.
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