Vegetarian kids

The American Dietetic Assn. concluded in July that as long as vegetarian diets are planned well, they're safe for people at every stage of life. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Toddlers who refuse to eat furry animals; teenagers who suddenly hate everything their parents cook; children of vegetarian parents. Whether it's your choice or theirs, raising a vegetarian kid can be a challenge.

Along with the power struggles -- refusals by kids to eat what's served, refusals by Mom or Dad to prepare something else -- are parental fears, fanned by old studies, that kids aren't getting the nutrition they need to support their rapidly growing bodies.

As vegetarianism becomes more accepted and maybe even more common -- and that includes the nation's younger set -- here's the good news: Based on an exhaustive study review, the American Dietetic Assn. concluded in July in a new position statement that as long as vegetarian diets are planned well, they're safe for people at every stage of life: pregnant and nursing moms, babies, teenagers and just about everyone else.

The report was the first to emphasize the benefits of a meatless meal plan as opposed to simply stating that a vegetarian diet was OK. A meat-free meal plan, it stressed, may lower rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

This doesn't mean that raising meat-free kids is a cakewalk -- especially given children's notoriously picky eating habits. Unusual lunch box contents can make a schoolkid feel ostracized. Restrictive eating among adolescents can be a sign of an eating disorder and should be viewed with caution if the behavior accompanies other warning signs. (See related story online.)

Mac-and-cheese alone is not enough to sustain a growing child's nutritional needs. Failing to plan carefully can deprive developing brains and bodies of essential nutrients -- notably protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12 -- especially if kids become vegan and shun animal products altogether.

"The benefits of a vegetarian diet are wonderful for adults and can be wonderful for kids, but parents can make the mistake of forgetting that children are not little adults," says Meredith Renda, a pediatrician at Doctor's Pediatrics in Wilton, Conn. "Kids have small stomachs and short attention spans. You really have to pack a punch with as many nutrients as possible."

Growing in numbers

It's hard to pin down just how many people are eating vegetarian diets. For one thing, definitions vary. Some people call themselves vegetarian even if they occasionally eat fish or chicken, while others have stricter views.

For another, statistics vary depending on how surveys are done. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about 1.5% of adults followed a vegetarian diet in 2007, about the same number as in 2002.

But those numbers may be lowballs because the poll questions catch people who use vegetarianism only to address health, not ideological, concerns, says Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian in Amherst, Mass., and one of the authors of the American Dietetic Assn. report.

Polls by the Vegetarian Resource Group find that among adults, vegetarianism has become slowly and steadily more popular in the last 15 years, says Mangels, who is a nutrition advisor for the advocacy organization.

In 1994, the group estimated that 1% of American adults were true vegetarians, eating diets free of meat, fish and seafood. Today, about 3% of American adults (between 6 million and 8 million people) avoid those foods, according to the vegetarian group's 2009 poll of more than 2,000 people.

The stats for children also differ depending on source. A recent CDC poll of about 9,000 parents and guardians found that 367,000 kids under the age of 18 -- or about 1 in 200 -- are vegetarian. Again, Mangels says the true rates may be higher. A 2005 Vegetarian Resource Group poll of more than 1,200 young people estimated that 3% of 8- to 18-year-olds (about 1.5 million kids) were vegetarian and 1% were vegan.

There are also a growing number of people -- kids included -- who still eat meat but are eating less of it and choosing more typical vegetarian foods instead.

Sales of processed vegetarian products, such as soy milk, soy yogurt and vegetarian breakfast sausages, totaled about $1.4 billion in 2008, according to the market research firm Mintel, up 15% from 2003. Close to one-third of adults say they ate a soy-based meat substitute in the last year, Mintel reports.

These days, even Burger King offers veggie burgers.

Meat's pitfalls

At least for adults, there is accumulating evidence that a traditional meat-and-potatoes diet is not the healthiest way to eat. For example, a March study of more than 500,000 people ages 50 to 71 found that adults who ate the most red meat were more likely to die over a 10-year period than were those who ate the least, mostly due to extra cases of cardiovascular disease and cancer.