In recent years vegetarianism has grown in popularity. School-age children become more conscious that animals must be killed in order to obtain meat, and that knowledge may prompt them to choose a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber and polyunsaturated fat, and low in cholesterol and calories.
If your child is following a vegetarian diet, you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies. There are various degrees of vegetarianism, and the strictness of the diet will determine whether your youngster is vulnerable to nutritional shortcomings.
Following are the common categories of vegetarians. Although none eat meat, poultry, or fish, there are other areas in which they vary:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume eggs, dairy products, and plant foods.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products and plant foods but not eggs.
- Vegans eat only plant foods, no eggs or dairy products.
Children can be well nourished on all three types of vegetarian diet, but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated. Vegetarians sometimes consume insufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D if they remove milk products from their diet.
Also, because of the lack of meat products, vegetarians sometimes have an inadequate iron intake. They may also consume insufficient amounts of vitamin B-12, zinc, and other minerals. If their caloric intake is also extremely low, this could cause a delay in normal growth and weight gain.
Vegetarians may also lack adequate protein sources. As a result, you need to ensure that your child receives a good balance of essential amino acids. As a general guideline, his protein intake should come from more than one source, combining cereal products (wheat, rice) with legumes (dry beans, soybeans, peas), for example; when eaten together, they provide a higher quality mixture of amino acids than if either is consumed alone.
Other planning may be necessary. To ensure adequate levels of vitamin B-12, you might serve your child commercially prepared foods fortified with this vitamin. While calcium is present in some vegetables, your child may still need a calcium supplement if he does not consume milk and other dairy products. Alternative sources of vitamin D might also be advisable if there is no milk in the diet. Your pediatrician may recommend iron supplements, too, although your child can improve his absorption of the iron in vegetables by drinking citrus juice at mealtime.
A Zen macrobiotic diet usually presents many more problems than a vegetarian diet. With a macrobiotic program, important foods (animal products, vegetables, and fruit) are severely restricted in stages. This diet is generally not recommended for children. Youngsters who adhere to it may experience serious nutritional deficiencies that can impair growth and lead to anemia and other severe complications.