More kids are choosing vegetarian diets, and staying healthy

Is a vegetarian diet enough to sustain growing teenagers?

“Please pass the vegetables!” may be a scarcely-heard phrase from kids sitting around the dinner table, but the sentiment is becoming more common as adolescents and teens explore vegetarianism.

While very recent and consistent data on the number of vegetarians in the United States is hard to come by, it’s generally estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in 200 American children under 18 is a vegetarian (that number reflects mostly teenagers, who have more control over their diets). This increase begs the questions: What does this mean for young vegetarians’ overall health? And how does it impact family life?

Understandably, parents may fear that it’s harder for vegetarian kids to eat a balanced diet and fit in socially. Some vegetarians replace meat with unhealthful sweets and carbohydrates, rather than vegetables and plant-based proteins, and there are news stories about high school vegetarians being teased for their different eating habits.

But parents may be happy to know that a study by the American Dietetic Association shows that when meatless diets are planned well, they’re safe for people of all ages, including babies, children and teenagers. Sara Yen RD, LDN, at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Center, agrees with the findings: “Parents can absolutely raise their kids on vegetarian diets,” she says.

Yen does point out one caveat regarding young babies, however. “Parents should be aware of feeding babies protein with safe textures while they learn to eat,” she says. “At first, things like soft tofu and mashed beans are good options, and as they grow, trying things with a more complicated texture like peanut butter can be helpful.”

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Claire McCarthy, MD a pediatrician at Children’s, raises her five children in a vegetarian household, and is happy to report that they haven’t suffered any social setbacks and have enjoyed good health all around. She had been a vegetarian for a decade, so when she had children, raising them on a meatless diet came naturally. “We kept them strictly vegetarian when they were little, through about age 3,” she says. “After that, they were allowed to eat meat outside of the house at restaurants and parties if they wanted to.” She gives her children a daily multivitamin, makes sure they get enough dairy, beans and whole grains, and on occasion feeds them fish.

Like McCarthy, many teenagers who were raised eating meat choose to become vegetarians on their own. Occasionally, pre-teens approach Yen with questions about eliminating animal products from their diets, and she explains to them that carefully selecting a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy plant proteins is the healthiest foundation for any diet. “Some of them choose to be vegetarians because they’re just picky and don’t like meat, so I stress the importance of healthy variety overall.”

One of their most common concerns is that they won’t get enough protein. “I explain how much protein a person actually needs versus what people think they need,” says Yen. A child who is 12 only needs less than half a gram of protein per pound of body weight, so a 75-pound girl, she needs 34 grams of protein a day. “Two servings of high-protein legumes, like lentils, is already half her day’s supply,” she says. Yen talks with them about which sources of protein the child has already introduced into her daily life, and suggests options like yogurt, beans, quinoa, tempeh and tofu.

Sometimes, it’s the parents of newly-vegetarian children who need more hand-holding than the teens themselves. “I explain to parents that it’s perfectly healthy, and very possible for kids to get everything they need from a plant-based diet,” she says. “It’s really just a small part of each meal that’s being replaced, and it can be really interesting to try new things. Some parents even wind up exploring whole new exciting dietary options because of their vegetarian children.”

Read more about the USDA’s MyPlate icon, indicating the types of food (and how much of them) should occupy a person’s plate at each meal.