Not an easy question to answer. Here are both sides of the arguement. Vegetarians generally are healthier than their meat-eating friends. They have much lower rates of cancer and hypertension, and up to a 50% lower risk for heart disease compared to the general public. They also have an easier time managing their weights and they live longer. However, no studies have followed vegetarian kids through adulthood, so we don’t know for sure whether starting young has added advantages.

Our young children aren’t eating well. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s national nutrition survey, only one in every 100 children eat the recommended amounts of all five food groups. Girls between the ages of 12- and 15-years-old have the poorest nutrition of any other group in our country. Older teenage girls come in a close second. Their diets are typically low in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B6, and fiber, to name only a few. A vegetarian diet can help or hinder, depending on how it’s planned.

With lacto-ovo vegetarian diets (includes milk and eggs) it’s relatively easy to supply all the nutrients a growing child needs, since these diets contain foods from all five food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, milk, and meat/legumes). The going gets tough with vegan diets, which exclude all animal products. These diets require careful planning or they will be low in iron, zinc, protein, calcium, iodine, and vitamins B2, B12, B6, and D. Vegans kids also must be especially judicious about getting enough calories and in combining complementary proteins from grains, nuts, and legumes.

Iron and zinc are two of the biggest nutritional concerns for vegetarian children. Up to 88% of teenage girls who are vegetarian are iron deficient. Young kids and teens must include several daily servings of iron- and zinc-rich foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and especially cooked dried beans and peas, soy products, wheat germ (add to pancake and muffin batter, cereals, and smoothies).

Problems arise when teens adopt vegetarianism for weight, not health, reasons. A study from the University of Minnesota found that teenage vegetarian girls were twice as likely to diet, four-times as likely to use self-induced vomiting, and eight-times as likely to use laxatives than other teenagers. However, it is not that vegetarian diets cause eating disorders, but rather that a teenager already obsessed with body image or food may use vegetarianism as another way to control eating, avoid fat, or lose weight.

Parents are responsible only for what, when, and where food is served in the home; it is the child’s decision which and how much of those foods he or she chooses to eat. Children of all ages choose foods based on what’s available. If you stock the kitchen with cooked bean dishes, dried fruits, yogurt, whole grains, and cut-up vegetables, and don’t stockpile chips and soda pop, then you’re child will have only nutritious foods to chose from.