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Is it safe for my child to be a vegetarian?

Q. My 12-year old daughter is now eating a vegetarian diet. Is this safe for such a young child? Are there any recommendations for making sure she is still getting all of her required nutrients?

Vegetarian diets are gaining popularity in the United States. There are several different kinds of vegetarian diets:

Partial vegetarian: Avoids only red meat

Ovo-lacto vegetarian: Avoids meat, seafood and poultry, but does consume milk products and eggs

Vegan: Avoids all foods that contain animal products

In many ways, vegetarian diets are healthy because they tend to be lower in fat and higher in fiber than the traditional American diet. However, the more restrictive the diet, the more prone a child will be to vitamin deficiencies. Some vitamins to pay close attention to include:

Vitamin B-12: This is only present in animal products, so it’s important to consume foods that are fortified with Vitamin B-12.

Calcium and Vitamin D: Both become more of an issue with a vegan diet. Certain vegetables such as broccoli, sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables contain calcium.

Protein: Vegetarian sources include legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.

Iron: Absorbed more efficiently from animal products.

Zinc: Deficiency can be a problem with a vegan diet. Yogurt is a good source of zinc.

Families who are following a vegetarian diet, particularly with young children, should visit a nutritionist for guidance. Taking a daily multivitamin with iron can also provide an extra safeguard against vitamin deficiencies. Strict vegans may need calcium and vitamin D supplements as well.

In this particular instance, I would have a discussion with your daughter about why she has chosen a vegetarian diet and how she plans to get the nutrients that she needs. Sometimes a vegetarian diet can be a way for an adolescent to “mask” an underlying eating disorder. So it is important to be aware of this and to make sure that her total caloric intake is adequate.