In recent years vegetarianism has grown in popularity. School-age children have become more conscious that animals must be killed in order to obtain meat, and that knowledge may prompt them to choose a vegetarian diet. The good news is that vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber and polyunsaturated fat, and low in cholesterol and calories.

If your child is following a vegetarian diet, however, it's wise to guard against nutritional deficiencies. There are various degrees of vegetarianism, and the strictness of the diet will determine whether your youngster is vulnerable to nutritional shortcomings.

Following are the common types of vegetarianism. Each of these groups does not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but they differ in other areas:

Children can be well nourished on all three types of vegetarian diet, but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated. It is possible that insufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D can be consumed if milk products are removed from the diet.

Also, because of the lack of meat products, vegetarians sometimes have an inadequate iron intake. They may also consume insufficient amounts of vitamin B-12, zinc, and other minerals. If caloric intake is also extremely low, this could cause a delay in normal growth and weight gain.

It's important to ensure an adequate intake of protein and essential amino acids. This can be done easily by ensuring your child eats a variety of non-meat protein sources such as beans and soy. As a general guideline, try to provide protein from more than one source, combining cereal products (wheat, rice) with legumes (dry beans, soybeans, peas), for example; when eaten together, they provide a higher quality mixture of amino acids than if either is consumed alone.

To be sure your child gets adequate levels of vitamin B-12, you might serve commercially prepared foods fortified with this vitamin. And certain vegetables, like broccoli and spinach, offer a dairy-free option for calcium. However, your child may still need a calcium and/or vitamin D supplement if he does not consume milk and other dairy products. Your pediatrician can help you determine what, if any, vitamin or mineral supplements may be necessary.

A Zen macrobiotic diet usually presents many more problems than a vegetarian diet. With a macrobiotic program, important foods (animal products, vegetables, fruit) are severely restricted in stages. This diet is generally not recommended for children. Youngsters who adhere to it may experience serious nutritional deficiencies that can impair growth and lead to anemia and other severe complications.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics