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The Informed Parent


by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Feb. 21, 2005

In light of all the national attention and media coverage of our epidemic of obesity, many families are beginning to pay more attention to the foods that cross their table each day. Some may choose to alter their diets altogether, either as part of a lifestyle change or in line with certain personal philosophies. One alternative some choose is to become a vegetarian. Vegetarians in general are thought to be those individuals that choose to avoid meats in their diets. In truth, there are many variations of vegetarianism. Those who avoid all animal products are termed vegans, while those that consume only chicken or fish are called pollo or pesca vegetarians respectively. Those that consume dairy, eggs, and chicken but avoid red meats are semi-vegetarians.

There are health benefits to a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarians have a lower body mass index (BMI) than the general population. Body Mass Index is the standard by which a healthy weight may most readily be distinguished from an unhealthy one. Vegetarians also benefit from lower total and LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressures and lower mortality. This translates into a lower risk of coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, and type II diabetes.

However, in strict vegetarian diets there are also some nutrients that may be lost. Among these are calcium, iron, zinc, and protein, as well as vitamin B2, B12 and vitamin D. These important dietary components may be supplemented by other foodstuffs, but families must first be aware of their risk to identify it and be savvy enough to add in these extra needed nutrients. Soybeans, soy yogurt, and soymilk should be a staple of a vegetarian diet to ensure that adequate levels of calcium, iron and protein are consumed daily, particularly in growing children and adolescents. Almonds, cashews, and legumes serve as hearty sources of zinc and protein. Vitamin B2 and B12 requirements can be met through fortified cereals and nutritional yeast products. By including these elements in a vegetarian diet that is already high in vegetable and fruit consumption, families may avoid deficiencies that can compromise the value of a vegetarian diet.

National surveys estimate that approximately six percent of adolescents identify themselves as vegetarians. Most identify animal cruelty as the reason behind their choice. There are also several eastern religions that include vegetarianism as part of their doctrines. If a child chooses to become a vegetarian outside of their previous upbringing families often fall into conflict. Parents should be cautioned to ask respectful questions to their child to understand the reasoning behind their choice. As long as these conversations are grounded in healthy beliefs about food and body image, teens should be allowed to explore and live their beliefs. It may present a quality opportunity for the family to learn more about nutrition and diet together.

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