Living with a little vegetarian

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POSTJune 24, 2013 

Lately I seem to be getting the same question over and over: "What do I do when my child wants to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle?" For most, it begins with powerful feelings about animals.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that "well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes."

It's important to educate yourself and your child about the nutrient disparities between omnivorous and vegetarian diets. That way they can make educated decisions when away from home.

An easy start if you're considering how to get a vegetarian dinner on the table if your family is used to eating meat every night is to convert your family's favorite meals into vegetarian versions of the original. A chicken stir-fry works with vegetables and brown rice. A taco doesn't need steak, chicken or fish; beans and vegetables make ideal fillings.

Unearth some vegetarian cookbooks at the library for your child to explore. Letting your child take some of the responsibility for this decision is smart: Kids should learn to cook and should understand how their demands impact their family.

It's vital to know how a meatless diet will affect their nutrition intake. Here are nutrients to watch for:

PROTEIN

When I was in high school, the typical vegetarian ate pasta and bread. Vegetables, too, of course, but there were many who loaded up on refined carbs in place of meat. These folks probably didn't consume enough protein. Protein makes up about 20 percent of a healthy body, including bones, hair, skin, nails, enzymes and neurotransmitters, and provides 10 percent of our energy. So be sure your child gets enough.

Vegetarian protein sources include:

- Legumes (lentils, peas)

- Beans (Great Northern, black, pinto)

- Whole grains (quinoa, millet, oatmeal, brown rice)

- Nuts and nut butters

- Seeds

IRON

A lack of iron affects energy levels, blood health and the transfer of oxygen through cells, so it is important to eat enough iron-rich foods when not eating meat. Vegetarian iron (nonheme iron) is absorbed less easily than iron from animal products (heme iron). Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, so broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and citrus are the perfect mate to vegetarian iron-rich foods.

- Pumpkin seeds, cashews

- Lentils, kidney beans

- Oatmeal, barley, quinoa

- Spinach, Swiss chard

CALCIUM

We all know we need calcium for bones, but it is also important for heart, muscle and nerve function. Most people think of dairy as a main source of calcium, yet there are many delicious vegetarian sources of this mineral, too.

- Vegetables (broccoli, squash, kale, sweet potatoes)

- Legumes (navy beans, kidney beans, Great Northern beans)

- Whole grains and seeds

- Fruit (oranges, raisins)

- Tofu

VITAMIN B12

Vitamin B12 is important for stabilizing mood and memory, yet it isn't found in plant foods except for sea vegetables; therefore, a best bet is to take a supplement. Check with a doctor before changing a diet or adding a supplement.

VITAMIN D

Vitamin D helps build strong bones and prevent disease. Sources include sunlight, fish, eggs and dairy. A supplement is ideal when eating a strict vegetarian diet and living in the mid-Atlantic or northern states. Check with a doctor before changing a diet or adding a supplement.

OMEGA 3S

Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and help prevent heart disease and many other chronic illnesses. These healthful fats are most frequently derived from salmon and other wild fish, so if fish is absent from the diet, eat walnuts and ground chia and flaxseeds to get these essential fats.

Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company.

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