Believe It Or Not: Kids Who Really Like Their Veggies
Any child on a vegetarian diet needs to understand the concept of "complete and incomplete proteins." Four different categories of plant foods include incomplete proteins: legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. Eating a protein from one group and a protein from another group forms a complete protein, DeAntonis says.
Translation: peanut butter and whole-wheat bread, red beans and rice, and hummus (chickpeas and sesame seeds) -- are all complete proteins.
An on-the-go teen may need a specific list of foods they can match to get a complete protein. "The bottom line is, if they're going to be a vegetarian, that's fine, as long they understand what a child's diet is supposed to contain. It may mean that [a pediatrician or nutritionist] has to be specific and careful about listing what their diet should include," DeAntonis tells WebMD.
"I really focus on nutrition in the teen age group," she tells WebMD. "At that point, they're making their own decisions about diet as opposed to what's being fed them. I try to identify the main elements that tend to be lacking in an unstructured vegetarian diet -- iron, calcium, vitamin B-12, protein. "
A word of caution about turning kids into vegetarians: Nancy Anderson, RD, MPH, a nutritionist with Emory Health System in Atlanta, says, "Parents who push kids toward vegetarian diets could foster behaviors for eating disorders, to which teens are prone anyway. And if a child suddenly decides to go vegetarian, that can sometimes be a red flag to a parent to pay attention and make sure the child isn't developing some form of eating disorder."
One of the reasons many families go vegetarian is because it's heart-healthy. But in fact, teens don't need to go vegetarian to prevent future heart problems, says Ronald Krauss, MD, nutrition researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and former chairman of the nutrition committee for the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA does recommend that once a child is two, parents should control or limit the amount of saturated and total fat in the diet.
However, Krauss tells WebMD, "there are plenty of non-vegetarian foods that meet AHA guidelines. Perfect examples are fish, white meat of chicken, even lean red meats."
What can you do if your six-year-old suddenly announces she wants to go vegetarian?
"This is surprisingly common," Roberts tells WebMD. "The best strategy is to not overreact, and say if she doesn't feel like meat at the moment, that is fine. She can stay healthy if she continues to drink milk, eat eggs, etc. Just let her eat the other foods on the table."
"Many children, when they realize they have the free choice to not eat meat in a meat-eating household, decide to go back to it," says Roberts. "If the child stays with her vegetarian options, just make sure to keep milk and eggs and a complete multivitamin/mineral supplement on the menu to prevent nutritional deficiencies."