Nutrition & Health   > Losing Meat, But Keeping a Child's Diet Balanced

The New York Times on the Web ---- By Mindy Sink


After seeing the movie "Babe" at age 9 and realizing the source of what was on her plate, Lauren Pierpoint of Boulder, CO, decided to stop eating meat. At age 6, Nathan Kessel of Boston, MA, was given a choice by his parents between a vegetarian diet and eating meat regularly; he has been a vegetarian for three years now. With a finicky toddler who would spit out any type of meat, Heidi Feldman of Norcross, GA, decided "almost overnight" to put her entire family on a vegetarian diet. School lessons about endangered species combined with a visit to the zoo persuaded 7-year-old Laura Grzenda of Boulder to stop eating meat.


"Every time I put a piece of meat in my mouth, I felt like the animal was talking to me," Laura, now 12, said. "It was saying 'Moo, don't eat me.'"


For Mrs. Feldman, the choice was a compromise. "Eating became a battleground and it was difficult for me to cook two different meals -- one for the three of us who ate meat and a vegetarian meal for Nicole," she said.


Vegetarian diets for children have become more accepted in recent years by some parents, pediatricians, nutritionists and even the renowned child care authority Dr. Benjamin Spock. In the seventh edition of "Baby and Child Care," published shortly after his death, in 1998, Dr. Spock recommended that a vegetarian diet begin at age 2, with fortified foods, drinks and daily vitamin and mineral supplements. Dr. Spock believed his own health improved after he switched to a vegetarian diet late in life.


Although Dr. Spock's push for a nearly lifelong vegetarian diet generated some controversy among his peers, it did not settle the matter of whether a meatless diet was ideal at any age, particularly in children and adolescents.


Yet pediatricians in Colorado and elsewhere said in recent interviews that they were seeing more children and adolescents choosing vegetarian diets.


'I would say there is definitely a trend toward meatless diets,' said Johanna Dwyer, a professor at Tufts University School of Nutrition and the director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at the New England Medical Center


The term vegetarian generally means a person who does not eat meat, and instead favors a diet of foods from plant sources. A lacto-vegetarian is someone who eats dairy products but no eggs, meat, fish, poultry or seafood; an ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but no meat, fish, poultry or seafood; a pesco-vegetarian will eat fish but no other meat; a pollo-vegetarian eats chicken but no other meat. One of the more strict diets is the vegan (pronounced VEE-gun), in which someone eats food only from plant sources and may also avoid eating honey or taking animal-based supplements and immunizations or wearing leather clothing.


Ms. Pierson's daughter, Phoebe, became a vegetarian at 13 after seeing an animal rights movie, where she learned the origin of veal. "I called it 'veal to zeal' and immediately I expected it to last maybe a week," Ms. Pierson said.


At Ms. Pierson's house in South Salem, NY, meal times can be chaotic with a pot roast for her husband and stir-fried rice with tofu for her daughter. "Everybody in the family eats different stuff, but I try to have some sit-down meals together," she said.


Ms. Pierson said her daughter ate a lot of hummus and pita bread, as well as rice and beans, veggie burgers and noncheese pizza for meals and bagels, guacamole and fresh fruit for snacks. Some experts believe these types of healthier eating choices with low-fat, high-fiber foods should be introduced early. "Raising children as vegetarians has the advantage that we as adults tend to continue the diet we're raised on," said Dr. David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell. "I find it almost impossible to make a nutritional argument against it."


The American Dietetic Association has taken the position that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."


The younger the children are, the more careful the parents need to be with their diets, said Dr. Nancy Krebs, co-director of Coordinated Nutrition Services at Children's Hospital in Denver. "Growth can easily be impacted, along with energy and nutritional requirements." Concern lies with those who do not get enough protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium and zinc in their diets. All of these nutrients are found in animal sources, in which they are more easily absorbed by the body. Children need all of those elements for energy, cognitive thought and achieving maximum growth potential with proper tissue and bone density. When children are lacking essential nutrients, they can develop malnutrition, rickets, anemia and lack of menstruation in girls.


Adequate caloric intake is an issue in any diet for children. "The big risk for growing children is getting enough calories in," said Dr. Nanci Grayson, a nutritionist in Boulder, who is raising her two children as vegetarians. "Because children have smaller stomachs, and they need to eat a great deal more bulk of legumes, nuts, grains, soy, beans and other foods. "


To reduce fat in school lunches, the United States Department of Agriculture recently lifted restrictions on how much soy could be used in federally subsidized lunches. Soy, a popular protein source in vegetarian diets, can be found in tofu; soy cheese and milk and other soy foods are also available. Sloppy joes might be replaced by veggie burgers or tofu-filled ravioli in school lunches. Whether it is the choice of the parent or the child not to eat meat, there seems to be increasing support, in children's books with vegetarian characters, in restaurant and school cafeteria menu choices and in Internet chat rooms. The Vegetarian Resource Group has recently started a parents' network on its Web site where people can exchange recipes and advice.


"Data show that young adults who consume a vegetarian diet are just as healthy or more so than those who are not, and the key is sufficient variability," Dr. Levitsky said.