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Believe It Or Not: Kids Who Really Like Their Veggies

WebMD Health News

Sept. 8, 2000 -- They're picky eaters already, but increasing numbers of kids are going vegetarian. Some parents are pushing their kids to go veggie, but many kids are making their own decision to eschew meat forever.

So what's the appeal of vegetarian diets to kids?

Fear of eating their favorite cartoon or movie hero (think Babe) is a reason many younger children give for turning vegetarian. After seeing an endearing animal friend save the world, meat is just too tough to swallow. For other youngsters, it's parents choosing to reduce the risk of certain illnesses or to follow religious or spiritual beliefs.

Teenagers adopt vegetarian diets for a number of reasons, Kate DeAntonis, MD, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, tells WebMD. "Some adolescents adopt it as a fad. For others, it's an identity issue. And there are those who form a philosophy that prohibits meat consumption because they are against animal rights violations."

Also, many teenagers adopt vegetarianism to lose weight, says DeAntonis. "They know that hamburgers are fattening, cheese is fattening. They eliminate animal products they think are fattening without recognizing the nutrition content.

"Others are simply not big meat eaters; they just don't like meat that much. It's not that they want to be vegetarians. Many kids don't like the texture or taste of meat, and by the time they get to be teenagers, they've never gotten used to it," adds DeAntonis.

But how safe are vegetarian diets for growing kids and maturing teens? Are there serious health problems that could develop?

In a recent issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study showed that teens who ate a strict macrobiotic (no meat) diet during infancy and early childhood had signs of impaired thinking abilities. The kids all had vitamin B-12 deficiencies and had performance problems on tests measuring short-term memory, reasoning abilities, capacity to solve complex problems, abstract thinking ability, and the ability to learn.

Yet another recent study, appearing in TheJournal of the American Medical Association, analyzed the neurological development of almost 500 children who had been fed a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol during the first five years of life. Researchers found that children on a 30% fat diet had neurological development that was comparable to the other children.

What should parents do? "Diets that only exclude meat and fish [but do include milk, eggs, cheese] are usually fine for kids provided that parents give a 'complete' multivitamin/mineral supplement to make up any shortfalls," says Susan Roberts, PhD, chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

However, "you have to make sure that fat doesn't get extremely low [less than 30% fat]," she tells WebMD. "Other than that, provided you include regular amounts of a vegetarian protein plus a rotating balance of other healthy foods, your kids should be fine." Because diets with less than 30% fat have not been studied, she advises avoiding them in very young children.

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