How to Raise a Healthy Vegetarian

Julie Ryan Evans

Photo by CoppieCat
There were several months in high school when I was a vegetarian. I almost gave my cattle-farming grandfather a fit before eventually caving for a burger when out with friends one day.

I haven't been a vegetarian since, but I admire those who are.

I wonder, however, about their children. I have plenty of problems feeding my toddler with meat as an option, and I wonder about the additional challenges parents face when it's not.

I caught up with two professionals in the area -- Dr. Jim Sears, co-host of the Emmy-nominated television show The Doctors, and Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietitian, mother of two, and creator of RaiseHealthyEaters, to discuss some things parents need to know to raise a healthy vegetarian.

What should parents consider before deciding to raise their child as a vegetarian? 

Dr. Jim: If the child has any special needs or medical problems, parents should consult their physician to see whether a child would be able to thrive on a vegetarian diet. For example, digestive problems seem to be on the rise, and it's important to check with your doctor to see if a child’s particular circumstances would be affected by any variation of a vegetarian diet.

Can a toddler get all the nutrition he needs from a vegetarian diet?

Jacobsen: According to the American Dietetic Association, when planned right, vegetarian diets can meet the needs of children. In fact, research shows that vegetarian children have diets higher in fruits, vegetables, and fiber and lower in saturated fat.

What are the biggest challenges to raising vegetarian children?

Dr. Jim: One of the biggest challenges is the availability and consistency of vegetarian options when your child isn't with you for any reason. For example, if your child goes on a play date and they only have hot dogs and chicken nuggets, that disrupts the child’s diet and your plan for them. You might want to have a conversation with the adults looking after your child to make sure there's education around what your child eats. If that isn't possible or alternatives aren't available, I suggest you pack food to send along with your child.

What are the benefits?

Jacobsen: The benefits of raising a kid vegetarian is that they're more likely to eat nutrient-dense plant foods. These eating patterns can help set them up for lifelong healthy eating habits.

Do vegetarian children need any extra vitamins or supplements?

Dr. Jim:  It depends on what kind of variety the vegetarian diet offers. Parents should be particularly aware of making sure their vegetarian children get enough of the following: B12 , Vitamin D, iron, calcium, protein, and zinc. For example, B12 can either be found in supplements or foods fortified with the vitamin, like soy milk or meat substitutes.

Are you raising your children as vegetarians?

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