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When Your Child Wants to Be a Vegetarian

Being a parent doesn’t come with a handbook. Dallas mom Melissa Boyd knows this all too well. About four months ago, her 14-year-old son Christopher declared he was going vegan, even though no one else in the family was. Sure, the Boyds have always stuck to a healthy diet, cutting out sweets, fast food and all red meat, but purely vegan – meaning no meat, dairy or animal products of any kind? Nope.
“At first, my husband and I said no way,” Melissa says. “But then we talked to people like our pediatrician and even a psychiatrist. Now we support him.” The pediatrician told her that Christopher could be completely healthy maintaining a vegan diet as long as he gets protein in some form. And, Melissa adds, Christopher hasn’t lost weight and appears to have plenty of energy, so it has simply been a time of adjustment – for her and her husband mostly.
Adopting a vegetarian diet is a growing trend among children and young adults. A national poll by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group found that 3 percent of American youths never eat meat, poultry or seafood, with one-third of these adhering to the more restrictive vegan diet.
Once upon a time, vegetarian staples such as soy milk and tofu were found only in specialty or health-food stores. Now you can find these items – along with veggie burgers and meatless hot dogs – in nearly every grocery. Restaurants typically offer a meatless entrée, many times with the choosy child in mind. Heck, even cartoon character Lisa Simpson is a vegetarian.
A mind of their own
Christopher’s independence didn’t start overnight. His mom says he’s highly intelligent, a bit quirky, and when he wants to do something, he does it. He started a conservation club at his private school to save the rhinos. No decision for Christopher comes without thought, and some research.
“I decided to become a vegan because eating animals is terrible for the environment,” Christopher says, noting that land is destroyed to grow animal feed. “It's also bad that we force animals to do something so that we can eat food that tastes better. Plants feel no pain, and less room is required to grow them.”
Christopher began his transformation by going cold turkey on meat. Soon afterward, he became vegan, cutting out eggs and cheese. “He told us he just couldn’t eat anything with a mother or a face, because he felt bad,” Melissa says. “I had him try fish once. He told me he’d never do it again because he just felt so sorry for the fish.” Although Melissa admits her son has gone to the extreme, she and her husband back his choices, especially since he has given them so much thought.
Dallas parents Rebecka and Dan Tobin went through a similar situation with their 6-year-old daughter Annabelle, who says she gave up meat “because I like and care about animals.”
“We weren’t surprised by her decision,” mom Rebecka says. “She is an animal lover. She thinks that it is mean and not right to hurt animals.”
Some friends have questioned the Tobins for backing their daughter’s decision – especially because of her age – but Mom and Dad are proud of her. “We asked her why, and her answers and reasoning behind the decision were reasonable,” Rebecka says. “Sometimes taking the non-normal path can be hard. We will support her being a vegetarian as long as she wants.”
Medical professionals generally agree that kids can hold to a vegetarian or vegan diet and maintain good health – with education and planning. Deborah Stern, a dietitian with Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, says, “Having your child make the choice to become vegetarian or a vegan can be somewhat daunting to the meat-eating parent, but it can also serve as an opportunity to learn more about nutrition and health.”
According to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “vegetarians of all types can achieve recommended nutrient intake,” including growing children. Stern says parental support is essential when a child makes the decision to become a vegetarian or vegan. Parents can help their kids by preparing meals with an “add-in” that the child can simply forgo. For example, the family can have a taco or burrito night with the meat presented as a separate ingredient. “Make sure to include beans, as this is an excellent source of protein and fiber,” Stern says. Another great meat substitute? MorningStar Farms’ Soy Crumbles. Stern suggests letting your child be a part of the grocery shopping and cooking so they still feel included, even though they’re opting to live a somewhat different lifestyle when it comes to eating.
Proceed with caution
Many parents might assume that a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet would be instantly healthy. Not so. A diet made up solely of hamburgers isn’t healthy, nor is one of only lettuce. The key to any diet is variety. “If kids are simply restricting meat and dairy and eggs without eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meat substitutes, nuts, beans, seeds and so on, they are at risk for inadequate intake of several nutrients,” says Kathleen Davis, outpatient dietitian for Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. “I sometimes joke about the ‘vegetarian’ who is on the cookie and ramen noodles diet. Obviously, that isn’t healthy.”
Vegetarian and vegan diets are often higher in some things, such as fiber, while lower in others (fats and protein). Stern advises that parents of young vegetarians monitor calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron (+ vitamin C) and zinc. The good news is that an overall healthy vegetarian or vegan diet consisting of fortified soy products, whole grain proteins, vegetables and fruits can adequately supply these nutrients.
Melissa made a decision to embrace her son’s independence, even if though it’s been a bit of a challenge for the family. Shopping for Christopher’s organic vegan diet is sometimes tough and even more expensive than her own. But because it’s important to him, it’s important to the rest of the family.
Rebecka says her daughter’s vegetarian diet takes a little more thought, but it’s worth it. “It has changed the way we eat,” she says. “We definitely cater our meals toward Annabelle's preferences. We eat a lot of beans, avocados, cheese and yogurt. To be honest, I don't really miss the meat.”