Many parents have had to ride out their kids' food jags — periods when a son or daughter favors mac and cheese over all else or refuses to eat anything that isn't breaded and fried. Those periods usually pass, but what if a child decides to make a permanent dietary change, such as foregoing meat?
It's a question that more and more U.S. parents are facing: a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reports that some 367,000 kids — or about 1 in 200 — are vegetarians. For the government's first estimate of how many kids avoid meat, researchers interviewed with about 9,000 parents data on their kids' eating habits.
And these numbers might just be part of a much bigger picture: Other surveys suggest the vegetarianism rate could be four to six times higher among older teens, who have more control over what they eat.
Most vegetarians say that it's concern about animal welfare, not health, that prompted them to stop eating meat. The CDC reported anecdotally that adolescent vegetarianism seems to be rising in part to explicit animal slaughter videos found online, but says there isn't enough long-term data to prove that.
What This Means to You
Should parents be concerned if their youngster wants to give up meat? Yes and no.
Experts agree that while vegetarian diets can be very healthy, some fall short on key nutrients such as protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron, and calcium found in meat. Growing kids need many of the nutrients found in meat, eggs, and dairy.
It's important to note that the term "vegetarian" isn't a one-size-fits-all description of non-meat diets. The major vegetarian types are:
- ovo-vegetarian: eats eggs; no meat
- lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats dairy and egg products; no meat
- lacto-vegetarian: eats dairy products; no eggs or meat
- vegan: eats only food from plant sources (no eggs or dairy products)
People following less-strict types of meat-restricted diets might eat poultry and fish but no red meat or pork; or fish but no red meat, pork, or poultry.
Parents of kids going vegetarian need to find non-meat options that provide proper nutrition. Kids who still eat eggs and dairy products will likely get all the nutrition they need. But parents of vegans need to be especially watchful for nutritional deficits.
Fortunately, most neighborhood grocery stores now carry a fair amount of veggie-friendly foods, including soy and other plant-based meat alternatives. Look for these good vegetarian sources of:
- calcium: milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, calcium-enriched tofu, white beans, chickpeas, bok choy, almonds, and calcium-fortified products (orange juice, soy and rice drinks, cereals)
- iron: tofu, enriched grains, dried beans and peas, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, blackstrap molasses, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, and eggs
- protein: beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, nuts, eggs, and low-fat dairy products
- vitamin B12: dairy products, fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast (tastes similar to cheese)
- vitamin D: fortified foods (soy milk, orange juice); also produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight
- zinc: dairy products, nuts, whole grains, and fortified cereals
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2009