The number of US adults following a vegetarian diet can be tough to pin down. Getting a handle on the number of vegetarian children is even more difficult. So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its first-ever figures on vegetarianism in US children, many health and nutrition professionals took note.
Vegetarianism: What is it?
A vegetarian diet excludes beef, pork, fish, chicken, and other poultry. Some vegetarians consume eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarian), while others, called vegans, strictly avoid animal products (including honey) and may also avoid wearing leather and wool. Some vegetarians consume only fruit, seeds, and nuts (fruitarians), while others stick to raw food (raw food vegans).
Vegetarianism by the numbers
To gather the recent estimates, the CDC conducted the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) in 29,266 households, across all regions of the country. Nearly 90% of households invited to participate in the NHIS did so, providing information from 75,764 people total. All types of vegetarian diets were counted together in this survey.
According to the results of the 2007 NHIS, approximately 0.5% of US kids follow a vegetarian diet. One-half of 1% may not seem like much, but if you consider that 74 million children currently live in the US, this means about 370,000 vegetarian children.
Considerations for vegetarian kids
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian children can get the nutrition needed to grow properly. A diet based around wholesome plant foods including beans (legumes), nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains is highly nutritious. However, it is possible that such diets could be low in nutrients that are more easily consumed in a non-vegetarin diet, if attention is not paid to making sure that alternate sources of these nutrients are worked in. These nutrients include: vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, calcium, or iron.
Whether they eat meat or not, kids gravitate to carbohydrate-heavy, processed fare such as white bread and pasta—foods that are fine in moderation. However, for proper nutrition, “kid-friendly” vegetarian junk food, such as macaroni and cheese, pretzels, crackers, and other simple carbs need to be a small part of a diet based on the same healthy foods that vegetarian adults enjoy.
Cultivating a healthy “veg head”
• Include your child in food preparation. Children who help with food preparation are more interested in enjoying the healthy things you prepare.
• Keep a close eye on vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and iron. Vegans, in particular, get little or no vitamin B12 in their diet without supplementation. If you are unsure of your child’s needs for these important nutrients, consult a dietitian.
• If your child is vegan, pay more attention to protein. Child who eat milk and eggs are unlikely to come up short on protein, but vegans need to eat plenty of beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds, soy milk, or tofu every day to meet protein needs.
• For younger kids, offer new vegetables, fruit, and other healthy food up to a dozen times for best acceptance. Even if your child refuses a food at first, offering it several times can change his or her mind.
• If you have a vegetarian teen, support his or her efforts by helping to prepare healthy vegetarian fare. Don’t let your teen fall into the “junk food vegetarian” track.
• Consult reputable resources, such as KidsHealth.org, for more information on kid-friendly vegetarian diets.
(National Health Statistics Reports 2008;12:1–24; Forum on Child and Family Statistics available at: www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/tables/pop1.asp; accessed Feb 3, 2009; KidsHealth Vegetarianism available at: kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition_fit/nutrition/vegetarianism.html; accessed Feb 3, 2009.)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
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