It wasn’t the fear of sustaining her daughter on a vegan diet that gave Monica Engebretson pause; it was wondering whether it would raise some eyebrows as Engebretson and her husband waded through the process of adopting Xela.
“The only real concern I had was that our diet choice would be scrutinized by our social worker and possibly jeopardize or complicate the adoption, but it wasn’t and didn’t,” the Sacramento mom recalled.
Engebretson is fast discovering that raising a vegetarian child isn’t merely an offshoot of her own twenty-one-year history of not eating meat but a national trend. A study by the CDC released last year showed one out of every two hundred kids in America follows a vegetarian diet. If you’re talking specifically about teenagers, the CDC says multiply that number by anywhere from four to six.
The correlation is fair, says Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a specialist in child and adolescent weight management. Meats are notoriously high in saturated fats, so a diet devoid of burgers and steaks is tantamount to a lower risk factor for elevated cholesterol levels. Replacing the meats and high-fat animal products with whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and fruits may also decrease the risk of elevated blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity and other diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
“The challenges are getting enough protein, B vitamins, reducing the amount of processed foods and unhealthy carbohydrates consumed and overall not getting a well-balanced diet,” says Dolgoff.
Studies on the affects of a vegetarian diet for children have varied widely. A 1980 study in Boston tried to pose a link between children abstaining from meat and higher intelligence, but it was largely discounted as correlation rather than causation because the families studied were found to have higher education levels than the average American family. Others have posited vegetarian children fall lower on the percentile charts then their peers in terms of height and weight. The former can be true – if kids aren’t getting appropriate nutrition. Vegans are at a higher risk for iron deficiencies, and the high fiber diets of vegetarian kids have to be carefully balanced to ensure children aren’t filling themselves on fiber and missing out on proteins, calcium and other vitamins.
As for the latter, dieticians are fast to warn people away from the assumption that vegetarianism is a low-fat option. “A child could be a vegetarian and consume a very nutrient-poor diet that is predominately junk food,” explains Michelle May, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. “I would caution parents of preteens and teenage girls to be on the lookout for signs of an eating disorder. Be mindful of the possibility that their child, particularly girls, is using the excuse of a vegetarian diet to limit her caloric intake.”
Of course, all of the problems – the need to balance appropriate amounts of nutrients, the need to ensure kids are eating enough but not eating too much – come with “mainstream eaters” too, says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietician and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler.
Fortunately, the majority of parents who are embarking on raising a vegetarian child are already vegetarians themselves. It would stand to reason that they know what they’re getting into and how to construct a healthy meat-free diet.
America’s Most Vegetarian-Friendly Cities
1. Asheville, North Carolina
2. Eugene, Oregon
3. Salt Lake City, Utah
4. Norfolk, Virginia
5. Santa Cruz, California
7. Boulder, Colorado
8. Madison, Wisconsin
9. Athens, Georgia
10. Ann Arbor, Michigan
To read why each city made the list, plus some great veg restaurant options if you visit, go to Go Veg.
Joan Hobbs, a Boulder, Colo. mom, had been a vegetarian for five years by the time she gave birth to her first child in 1989. Her husband hadn’t eaten meat in close to two decades. “We didn’t even consider feeding her any other way,” Hobbs says. It was a practice that would follow with their next two kids. All three are active athletes, and today their eldest, who went through her teens a competitive gymnast, is still a vegetarian.
“We didn’t really have any concerns,” Hobbs notes. “We ate a well-balanced diet, probably a bit heavy on the cheese, and we were both healthy so we knew that you didn’t need to eat meat, fish or chicken to live well and thrive.” The Hobbses were also wise enough to reach out to healthcare professionals when they had a concern, including their daughter’s sports physician.
That’s the biggest stumbling block for most parents, Ward said, whether they are vegetarian at the time of their child’s birth and planning this for their child’s future or their middle schooler comes home one day and announces they don’t want to see another chicken leg on their plate. “Adults can get away with a lot in terms of sub-optimal eating, but kids can’t,” Ward says. “You just really have to bone up on what that child needs.”
Again it’s something Ward would say to parents she’d term “mainstream eaters” – learning to adjust a diet to meet the needs of a growing child.
It’s likewise the reason not every vegetarian parent decides to raise their child without meat. Tanya Cohen, a mom of one from New York, hasn’t eaten a strictly vegetarian diet in the past two years, but even before daughter Gabby was born, she was what’s called a flexeterian: she phased out meats, starting with the red meats, but ate fish and chicken. But Gabby, now five, is purely omnivorous.
“Quite simply, she loves her meat, just like Daddy,” Cohen explains. “I don’t want to deprive her from something she really loves, besides, at present time she is growing and healthy and she does fine with it in her diet.”
Cohen credits her daughter with a good diet; she eats meat, plus her mother’s mix of vegetable-based foods. That’s what’s more important to Cohen – ensuring Gabby has fresh, healthy foods.
Fast Food: Vegetarian Style
Eating vegetarian on-the-go can be tricky. That’s why the people at Veg Cooking compiled this handy fast food chain guide. Here’s a sample:
Arby’s: Baked potato and a garden salad or side salad with Italian dressing. Dessert: apple or cherry turnover.
Burger King: BK Veggie – a flame-broiled vegetarian burger (contains dairy products).
Chipotle: Vegetarian fajita burrito with black beans.
McDonald’s: Offering a trial run of the McVeggie burger in California and New York City.
Panera: A bagel with roasted garlic hummus.
Subway: Veggie Delite without cheese and mayo.
For more fast-food chains, go to Veg Cooking.
“I made her own baby food and attribute her great eating habits to eating real healthy homemade foods with no sugar and preservatives, which you would find in the jarred foods,” Cohen explains. “When she gets older she can make her own choices whether or not she wants that type of food diet.”
From a purely nutritional standpoint, raising a vegetarian child may require more planning but that’s largely dependent on where you live. The Hobbses live in Boulder, Colo., where there is easy access to a wide variety of fresh foods and vegetarian options. Cohen lives in rural upstate New York, where the options are slim, especially in winter after the farmers markets have shut down.
Schools are also starting to get on board to help parents. A report from the School Nutrition Association reveals a forty percent rise since 2003 in the number of schools offering vegetarian fare. The numbers equate to at least two in three schools serving up meat-free options.
Even better news for parents of vegetarian kids: the American Dietetic Association is now officially behind you. According to paper released by the ADA just this past summer, “Vegetarian diets, if well-planned, are healthful and nutritious for all age groups and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases.”
Engebretson says that raising a child as a vegan or vegetarian has shed its stigma in the day of widespread food allergies. “Sometimes kids try to share their non-vegan items like goldfish crackers. I don’t snatch them away from her; I just tell the sharing child, ‘thank you, but she can’t eat those.’ If she eats a few, no big deal,” she says. “This is the same situation that kids who are allergic to nuts, wheat or chocolate face as well, so I don’t see it as placing an extraordinary burden on her.”