Believe It Or Not: Kids Who Really Like Their Veggies

From the WebMD Archives

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.


"Vegan and macrobiotic diets are another matter entirely," Roberts tells WebMD. In her recent book, Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health, she concludes that such diets are not safe. Vegan is a diet in which someone eats food only from plant sources and avoids all animal-based supplements. Vegan is the strictest vegetarian diet. A macrobiotic diet is a type of vegan diet but with more protein and nutrients.


Robert says, "There are multiple deficiencies commonly linked to [vegan and macrobiotic] diets, including calcium, vitamin B-12, etc. And we now know that deficiencies in childhood can have permanent effects. I strongly recommend that kids should not be given these diets. If parents follow them, they should consider adding milk, eggs, and cheese plus the multivitamin/mineral supplement to keep their kids from developing any deficiencies."


Very often, people use loose definitions of "vegetarian," says Sheah Rarback, RD, director of nutrition at Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami. "I've had people who come in and say 'I'm a vegetarian. ... I don't eat fish or I don't eat red meat or fish, or I eat it once in a while. There are so many different levels of being a vegetarian."


With any vegetarian diet, parents must make sure their child gets necessary nutrients, which means consulting with a pediatrician and registered dietitian who can evaluate the diet and check for deficiencies, Rarback tells WebMD. While vitamin and mineral supplements can correct some deficiencies, so can eating the right foods.


Her suggestions for avoiding some of these deficiencies:


  • Vitamin B-12 -- Vitamin B-12 is found in breakfast cereal and some breads. And because the USDA's recommended daily allowance for B-12 is small (two micrograms), a daily bowl of cereal should take care of that problem.
  • Calcium -- Calcium is found in soy products, which typically are fortified with calcium, says Rarback. In fact, powdered soy can be sprinkled on breakfast cereal. Many vegetables, including broccoli and kale, also have calcium.
  • Iron -- To replace iron (found in animal products), she advises eating peas, beans, whole-wheat products, and iron-fortified grains. "The absorption of those products is improved if you have a source of vitamin C like orange juice or another citrus fruit with it," Rarback tells WebMD. Also, dried fruits and prune juice have some iron.
  • Zinc -- Zinc (also in animal products) can be replaced by eating yogurt, cheese, whole-wheat breads and grains. "They have to be whole-wheat because the outside layer of germ has the zinc," she advises. To make sure your child is getting enough calories (if they aren't eating animal products), seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils can substitute.



Protein deficiency is common with many vegetarian diets, DeAntonis tells WebMD. All animal and soy products are complete proteins. But if the diet is restricted but contains some protein, the child is unlikely to have a protein problem, she says.


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."