Vegetarianism among children has gone mainstream in the past decade. According to a 2009 survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group, about 1.4 million American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 are vegetarian. Many parents who adopt the lifestyle tend to raise their children the same way mainly due to its health benefits. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concludes children and teens who are vegetarians take in less cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat and eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber than their non-vegetarian peers. It is wise for parents to keep nutrient deficiencies in mind with any diet that eliminates certain food groups to ensure their children get the nutrition they need.
Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood, which is why vegetarians need to make sure they are getting a sufficient amount from sources other than animal products. To ensure your child is eating enough protein to build and repair tissues, look to sources like tofu, nuts, dried beans and whole grains. For lacto-ovo-vegetarians, eggs and low-fat milk are both great protein sources.
Iron is the most common nutrient that is deficient among vegetarians. This is because iron-rich plants contain a non-heme iron that is harder for the body to absorb than the iron found in animal products. Food sources rich in this mineral include iron-fortified cereals, grains, lentils, dried beans, nuts, spinach, or supplementation. Iron-rich plant sources should be eaten with a vitamin C source, like a citrus fruit, to increase its absorption.
Calcium is needed for bone development and is important for growing children. Calcium containing products are found in dairy products such as low-fat milk and yogurt. For vegetarians who abstain from dairy, there are other calcium sources including fortified orange juice, soymilk, cereals, green leafy vegetables and almonds.
Research shows that a vegetarian diet can provide a nutritious and healthful lifestyle. If you are going to place your child on a diet that is heavily plant based, it is a good idea to seek out a registered dietitian or health professional for advice about a well-balanced diet and any supplements that may be needed.