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Pizza is not a vegetable

As more young children choose to avoid meat, nutritionists offer advice on keeping them healthy

About nine months ago, Jeremy Margolis made a moral decision to stop eating meat. He's no granola-crunching environmentalist. He barely knows how to read and write. Jeremy, a Brookline first-grader, is only 6.

His diet generally consists of macaroni and cheese, pizza, peanut butter and jelly -- and a few vegetables.

"I don't like killing animals and I don't like meat very much," he said.

Forget the Happy Meal. Vegetarianism is the latest fad among the primary school set. But some parents are worried.

"We don't think these are the healthiest foods to survive on," said Jeremy's father, Harry Margolis, who concedes he's a carnivore.

Jan Hangen, a clinical nutritionist at Boston Children's Hospital, says that after teenagers, 6- and 7-year-olds seem the most likely age group to choose to become vegetarians, even when their parents are not. It's an age when they first make the connection between the cute animals at the petting zoo and the piece of meat on their plate.

But Hangen warns that young children need protein to grow, and a haphazard vegetarian diet may be low in the high-quality protein that they need.

"A vegetarian diet can support optimal growth," she said, but only if the child eats enough protein and enough calories so some of the protein can be used for growth. "Kids grow in height by putting on weight first. But sometimes a vegetarian diet doesn't allow for that weight gain."

A bad vegetarian diet -- centering on French fries, sugary cereal, and dairy products, for example -- can lead to poor growth of the body and the brain, she said.

The Vegetarian Resource Group, a non-profit based in Baltimore, estimates that about one million school-age children never eat meat, fish, or poultry. A 2000 Roper Poll commissioned by the group found that about 2 percent of children ages 6-17 are vegetarian. The group defines vegetarian as someone who doesn't eat meat, fish, or poultry but does consume milk products and eggs. About one-third of vegetarians, called vegans, eschew all animal products, including milk and eggs.

The Vegetarian Resource Group's nutritional adviser, Reed Mangels, who is a vegetarian and is raising two vegetarian children, is less worried than Hangen about getting enough protein. Mangels, who lives in Amherst, says the key is a variety of healthful foods, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and soy products. And it's not necessary to serve a complete protein, such as rice and beans, at one meal -- just over the course of a day, she says.

"The main thing is to make sure they're not just taking the meat off the plate and living on bagels," she said.

Children also need micronutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron, which are most often found in animal products. Mangels says iron-fortified breakfast cereals, vegetarian burgers, and dried fruits are good sources of iron.

She argues that children who eat balanced vegetarian diets are generally healthier than children who eat meat-based diets. "Vegetarian kids tend to eat more vitamin C and their diets tend to be a little lower in fat," she said. "And if the child continues that diet into adulthood, they have a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. You're setting them up for a pretty healthy life."

A 1997 position paper by the American Dietetic Association seems to back her up, by saying that a vegetarian diet can be healthful for children.

Johanna Dwyer, a Tufts University nutrition professor, said she did a study about 20 years ago on nutrition in vegetarian children ages 5 and under in Boston. It showed that vegetarians did relatively well in terms of nutrition and growth, but vegans showed some growth problems.

"It makes sense to get some advice with a registered dietitian before you embark on this kind of diet," she said.

Hangen recommends tofu, beans, and eggs as sources of high-quality protein for meals, supplemented by high-protein snacks, such as yogurt, nuts, and even those candy-like energy bars.

For a child on a vegan diet, it's important to have a source of B-12, which is generally only found in animal products. A few choices: fortified soymilk or cereal, vitamin pills, or nutritional yeast.

Often, omnivore parents whose young children become vegetarians think of it as a phase that will pass. But Hangen says children who do it for philosophical reasons seem to stick with it. It's the parents' job, she said, to make sure children eat well while living up to their principles. The Margolis family insists that Jeremy drink two glasses of milk a day, and tries to give him a vitamin, but other than that they're still feeling their way.

"We definitely weren't expecting it," said Harry Margolis. "But his commitment to being a vegetarian is becoming deeper."

A healthy approach to vegetarian eating

Tips for vegetarian kids and the parents who feed them:

* There's more to life than pizza and macaroni and cheese. Choose a variety of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, eggs, and soy products.

* Eat protein at every meal and for snacks. Even those candy-like energy bars are OK.

* To get needed calcium, zinc, and iron, choose iron-fortified breakfast cereals, vegetarian burgers, and dried fruits. Vegans need a source of B-12, such as fortified cereal or soy milk.

* Hold a family food summit to talk about healthy vegetarian eating, and, if possible, seek advice from a registered dietitian

* Avoid unhealthy school cafeteria lunches (which leave vegetarians with few choices) and pack your own.

* If you're worried that you're missing something, take a daily multi-vitamin.


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