Not long ago in our society, a person who did not eat meat may have felt like a complete outcast. Well things are finally changing for vegetarians, even to the point of government recognition. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 states that “vegetarians of all types can achieve recommended nutrient intake.” Still, although vegetarianism is becoming more widely accepted by society, families raising their children with vegetarian ideals may encounter opposition or ridicule from others. Unfortunately, the vision of the typical vegetarian child as thin, weak, and anemic remains a common perception in the minds of those who have not accepted the meatless diet as a sustainable one for raising healthy children.

Fortunately, the negative stereotype is far from accurate. A study by the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the University of California at San Diego found that children on a vegetarian diet actually grew taller than meat-eating children. Other studies such as the Tennessee “Farm Study” (by The Center for Disease Control, 1989) and the China Health Study (by Dr. T. Colin Campbell) uphold the fact that vegetarian children reflect the same standard growth patterns as meat-eating children, sometimes exceeding the average build.

In regard to diet, the primary nutrition concerns are the same regardless of whether the child eats meat or does not eat meat. A child’s health is completely in the hands of his or her parents so it is the adult’s responsibility to make sure the child receives adequate amounts of all nutrients, especially protein, iron, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and calcium.

Protein is always the first thing that a meat-eater assumes vegetarians are lacking. This is simply due to a lack of knowledge. High quality protein is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, dairy, and even many vegetables. Sprouting and soaking beans, nuts and seeds produces an even higher quality protein. Eating a combination of protein foods throughout the day ensures that your child will get a complete protein. There are misconceptions about the amount of protein a child needs - meat is clearly not a necessity for assuring adequate protein. The average ten year old needs only about 28 grams a day. When a child eats a variety of foods throughout the day, a protein deficiency is highly unlikely.

Calcium is easily attained from dairy products. Young children should always be given whole milk rather than low fat or skimmed milks, which lack the fat soluble vitamins A and D. If dairy is undesirable for any reason, most soy and nut milks are fortified with Calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Other sources of calcium include tofu, dark green leafy vegetables, bok choy, broccoli, beans, figs, sunflower seeds, tahini, and almonds.

Vitamin D is manufactured naturally in the body with moderate sun exposure and is present in milk and fortified products. If you live in an area that receives very little sun, a vitamin D supplement may be a good idea for your child. While it is healthy to allow some exposure to the sun, always be conscious of how much sun your little one is getting. Keep his/her sensitive skin covered during prolonged exposure.

Vitamin B-12 is important for vegetarians and is found in dairy products, and in small amounts in yeast, tempeh, and mushrooms. Nutritional yeast is a great source of all the B vitamins and can be added to many dishes for a cheesy, nutty flavor that kids love.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in America, affecting vegetarian and meat-eating children alike. Iron is found in dried fruits, soy products, broccoli, beans and nuts. Vitamin C aids in iron absorption, so it is beneficial to serve vitamin-C-rich foods or take vitamins C supplement along with iron-containing food. Some symptoms of iron deficiency include lack of energy, pale skin in the lining of the eyes, gums, and nails, rapid and forceful heartbeat, brittle hair and nails, decreased appetite, and disturbed sleep. If you suspect your child has an iron deficiency, see a doctor and investigate supplements. The Down To Earth Wellness department staff can help you find the supplements you need.

In addition to nutritional concerns, many parents worry about the influence of other children upon the self-esteem of their own youngster. Your child will realize at some point that his diet is different from that of his peers and he may encounter criticism from friends and possibly even adults. However, more often than not, a vegetarian diet is generally accepted in most parts of the country. You might remember having difficult experiences standing by your veggie values in your life; chances are it will be easier for your child growing up vegetarian in today’s world. In light of the rise in childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes, a vegetarian diet is certainly not to be shunned. Still, it is important to educate your child on the reasons for his vegetarian diet. It is not difficult for a child to understand the cruelty of killing animals for food or the importance of maintaining a healthy body. Explain to him that other people may eat differently, but that it is important for him to be confident with his diet.

Raising your child vegetarian is an intelligent decision that will establish good eating habits for the rest of his or her life. If your child learns to enjoy a variety of vegetarian foods early in life and is allowed only a minimal amount of refined sugar, they will naturally be attracted to healthful foods later in life. In this way, you are helping your child avoid chronic health problems and encouraging him or her to be a responsible, caring, and compassionate person.