B'More Healthy - May 2014

Kids Eat the Darndest Things: Vegetarianism Is Growing Among Youth

By Joyce Heid

If one second-grader at Chapel Hill Elementary School in Perry Hall gets her wish, along with spaghetti and meatballs, tofu may soon be an option on her school's hot lunch menu.

Emma Saccenti, age 8, who lives with her family in White Marsh, recently wrote a letter to Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance asking that some vegetarian options, such as tofu, be added to the lunch menu.

And she is surely not alone in her wishes, in the county and beyond. A 2010 nationwide survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore dedicated to educating the public about the lifestyle, found that 3 percent of American youth, or about 1.4 million people between ages 8 and 18, are vegetarian, up from 2 percent 10 years ago.
There are two main types of vegetarianism. Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or fowl, such as chicken or turkey. A vegan is a vegetarian who also does not partake of animal byproducts, such as dairy items and eggs.

Many people choose a vegetarian lifestyle for themselves and their families for ethical reasons, typically centered around a stance against animal cruelty. Others are seeking a diet free of the hormones and other additives often found in the meats and dairy products of today.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, those who follow a vegan diet tend to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. They also tend to be at a healthier weight.

On its website HealthyChildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber and polyunsaturated fat and low in cholesterol and calories. It cautions parents, however, to be aware of the potential for nutritional deficiencies in their child's vegetarian diet, especially if it excludes dairy and egg products. Without the inclusion of proper foods, a vegetarian diet may lack nutrients including calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.

Reed Mangels, a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group, says ensuring your child’s vegetarian diet provides sufficient amounts of these essential nutrients is not as big a challenge as many might assume. “I honestly don’t think it takes any more time planning than any other parent spends planning,” says Mangels, who earned her doctorate in nutrition from the University of Maryland, College Park and raised her own two children, now ages 18 and 21, on a vegan diet.

A diet balanced with whole grains, soy or almond milk fortified with vitamin D and calcium, fresh fruits and vegetables, fortified cereals, nuts, beans, and meat substitutes, such as tofu and seitan, can be both delicious and ensure your child has everything a growing body needs.

In addition, “There are so many convenience foods available these days,” notes Mangels, author of “The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book” (Adams Media, 2011) and a contributor to several other books on vegetarianism and veganism as well. “Un-chicken nuggets, frozen vegan pizzas, veggie hot dogs, and veggie burgers can be found in many grocery stores. Hummus is also a really quick thing to make for dinner. Canned beans are great. Pasta with sauce from the jar with chickpeas is healthy and quick. You don’t have to give up convenience. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can still be nutritious.”

Emma Saccenti’s entire family is vegetarian. Her mother, Jenny Saccenti, has been a vegetarian for 23 years, so it was natural for her and her husband, Brian, to continue the lifestyle when they decided to have children. While pregnant, Saccenti says that along with prenatal vitamins, “I made sure I got the best nutrition I could in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables and a lot of protein in the form of tofu and beans and nuts.” Both Emma and her younger sister, Fiona, age 6, had healthy birth weights of more than 8 pounds and have continued to thrive, consistently measuring normal heights and weights on the standard growth chart at their checkups.

Saccenti says her girls know they are welcome to try meat or fish if they like but thus far have shown little interest in them. Like many siblings, however, they do things their own way: Emma doesn’t like eggs and cheese so she follows more of a vegan path; Fiona does like them and so is more of a traditional vegetarian. On school days they pack their own lunches, usually a peanut butter sandwich or Tofurky, a vegetarian turkey made from organic tofu and wheat gluten.

“I feel happy that I am vegetarian and that I am saving animals,” says Emma, who, as of press time, was still anxiously awaiting the Baltimore County school superintendent's response to her letter. “I live a normal life, and I get treated normal at school and other places.” BC



For more information about raising vegetarian kids, visit the website of the Vegetarian Resource Group, at www.vrg.org.

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. May 2014