*With the poor quality of many of today’s conventional meat products, a vegetarian diet just might be an appropriate fit for some modern children, one of three that are now overweight in the US.
A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that people of all ages, including children, that adhere to a vegetarian diet generally have lower average body mass indexes (BMI) than others, and are generally leaner than their meat-eating counterparts.
The report explains that obesity is less prevalent among vegetarians, and that average BMI increases progressively higher depending on how much meat a person eats. Vegans, for instance, generally have the lowest BMI, while vegetarians that eat dairy and eggs have a slightly higher average BMI. Meat eaters, suggest study authors, have the highest average BMI of all.
Besides simply the visible weight benefits, adhering to a vegetarian diet may also improve lipid profile, say the authors, which means that a person is less likely to experience coronary heart disease. This means that vegetarians may have a lowered risk of developing high cholesterol, or having a heart attack or stroke.
Because a plant-based diet can contain far more nutrients, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and water, than a meat-based diet, it is more likely to promote lean body mass rather than added fat, says the team. The extra fiber found in plant-based diets also contributes to making a person feel “full” more quickly than a meat-based diet would, which results in less food being eaten.
“Obesity represents a significant threat to the present and future health of children and leads to a wide range of physical and psychological consequences,” write the study authors. “A plant-based diet appears to be a sensible approach for the prevention of obesity in children.”
For a family considering a change to a vegetarian diet, or for those who want to bring up a child on a vegetarian diet, it is important to:
- Understand what foods need to be substituted in the diet as energy, protein and vitamin sources may need to be ‘topped up’.
- Encourage your child to eat a wide variety of foods.
- Alternate wholegrain and refined cereal products.
- Combine lower energy vegetarian foods, such as vegetables, with higher fat foods: for example, vegetable fritters.
- Increase the energy value of food by the use of nut butters, avocado, full fat dairy products, fat spreads and oils.
- Give your child regular meals and snacks.
- Combine foods containing vitamin C with foods that are high in iron. For example, offer an orange with baked beans on toast. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy for children. Young vegan children tend to be slightly smaller but still within growth normal ranges. And they tend to catch up to other children in size, as they get older.
If you are raising a child on a vegetarian diet, consider the following:
- Babies who get only breast milk should have supplements of iron after the age of 4 to 6 months. (This is not necessary if you add iron-fortified infant cereal to the child’s diet at this age.)
- A vitamin D supplement may be appropriate for children under 1 year of age. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.
- Breast-fed babies of vegan mothers need vitamin B12 supplements if the mother’s diet is not fortified.
- Children younger than 2 years need the extra fat in whole milk for brain and nerve development. Don’t give them low-fat or fat-free milk. If you are using soy milk instead of cow’s milk, make sure that it’s full-fat soy milk, and talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure your child is getting enough fat.
- Vegan diets can contain a lot of fiber. Fiber is great because it fills you up without adding a lot of calories. But children have small stomachs, and the fiber they eat can fill them up before they get enough calories. Frequent meals and snacks—with plenty of cereals, legumes, and nuts—will help children get the energy and nutrients they need for healthy growth.
You may be worried that you won’t get all the nutrients you need with a vegetarian diet. But as long as you eat a variety of foods, there are only a few things you need to pay special attention to.
- Calcium for vegetarians who don’t eat milk products. If you don’t get your calcium from milk products, you need to eat a lot of other calcium-rich foods. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, soymilk, and orange juice are good choices. Calcium-fortified means that the manufacturer has added calcium to the food. Other foods that have calcium include certain legumes, certain leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tofu. If you don’t use calcium-fortified foods, ask your doctor if you should take a daily calcium supplement.
- Vitamin D for vegetarians who don’t eat milk products. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important to keep bones strong. Vegetarians who don’t eat milk products can use fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals.
- Iron. Getting enough iron is not a problem for vegetarians who take care to eat a wide variety of food. Our bodies don’t absorb iron from plant foods as well as they absorb iron from meats. So it’s important for vegetarians to regularly eat iron-rich foods. Vegetarian iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products. And eating foods rich in vitamin C will help your body absorb iron.
- Vitamin B12 for vegans. Vitamin B12 comes from animal sources only. If you are a vegan, you’ll need to rely on food that is fortified with this vitamin (for example, soy milk and breakfast cereals) or take supplements. This is especially important for vegan women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Like everyone else, vegetarians also need to make sure they get the following nutrients:
- Protein. When considering a vegetarian diet, many people worry that they will not get enough protein. But eating a wide variety of foods—especially legumes and grains—will give you the protein you need.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t eat fish or eggs, you need to find other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil, and canola oil.
- Zinc. Your body absorbs zinc better when it comes from meat than when it comes from plants. But vegetarians don’t usually have a problem getting enough zinc if they eat lots of other foods that are good sources of zinc, including whole-grain breads, cooked dried beans and lentils, soy foods, and vegetables.
You can definitely keep your child on a vegetarian diet without any bad results if you concentrate on balancing his or her nutritional deficiencies. Ignore the urban legends on vegetarian diets and keep your child healthy.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.
His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, was released in January 2012.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com
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