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When Kids Don't Like Meat

Vegetarianism poses a special nutritional challenge in the young

Of the 12 million Americans who consider themselves vegetarians, no one knows how many have yet to celebrate their 21st birthday. Experts say, however, that adolescents make up the fastest-growing group of people who shun meat. But the nutritional needs of young people, particularly during growth spurts, may not be adequately addressed by some vegetarian diets. Dr. Johanna T. Dwyer, Director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at the New England Medical Center, explains what's appropriate nutritionally and what's not.

Is vegetarianism safe for children?

Well-planned vegetarian diets can be healthful for children over the age of two if they are carefully planned. These diets tend to be low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol and tend to be high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, as well as high in fruits and vegetables for iron.

What precautions are needed for primary school-aged children who are vegetarians?

Preschool-age vegetarian children on lacto-ovo (eggs and dairy products are allowed) diets, lacto-vegetarian (dairy products are allowed) diets, and semi-vegetarian (no red meat) diets rarely have problems, except occasionally for a lack of iron. The children more likely to have problems are vegans; they donŐt eat any animal products at all, including milk and eggs. Nutrient supplements can help prevent these problems, though.

What about teen vegetarians?

Vegetarian adolescents who drink milk and/or eat eggs have few problems if they follow basic nutrition guidelines. Vegetarian diets also seem to have little effect on age of menarche. There may be some effect on the menstrual cycle of female vegans, although these findings have not be substantiated. A vegetarian adolescent may benefit from iron and, possibly, zinc and calcium supplements. All adolescents should keep their ascorbic acid and iron intakes high via whole-grain and fortified cereals to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

Do teenage girls who are vegetarians need to take special precautions?

Once again, there may be problems with iron or calcium. When weights are very low, menstrual cycling may be abnormal or absent. Calcium needs are very high, and they are very difficult to meet on vegan diets. It is also very difficult to plan vegan diets that meet the RDA for zinc.

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Updated on October 8, 1995