When her daughter decided to become a vegetarian at age 13, Tamara Schwartz figured, “This will pass. I thought it would last a week.”
That was five years ago. At 18, Lua Schwartz, daughter of acclaimed Miami chef Michael Schwartz, has stuck to her decision to give up meat.
“It was difficult at first because I’m around food all the time,” said Lua, a recent graduate of New World School of the Arts. “Now, I’m used to it and I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”
The Miami Beach teen said she decided to switch to a plant-based diet when she read about “how unethical the meat industry is. I thought it was a way I could do my part and not support it.”
Schwartz is among a growing number of children and teens who have switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet for myriad reasons, whether it’s concern over the treatment of animals, the environment or what they perceive as a healthier diet.
“A plant-based diet is definitely trending, not just for adults, but teens and adolescents are jumping on board as well,” said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida. “Sometimes it’s just the kids who want to start the diet, and parents get concerned.”
Their concern is understandable. After all, this is a time when kids are growing and nutrients like iron, calcium, protein, Vitamin B-12 and and Vitamin D, sometimes lacking in a plant-based diet, are crucial. The question dietitians often hear is: “Can my kid be healthy without eating meat?”
“Absolutely,” said Lisa Farkas, a registered dietitian in the Wellness Center at Broward Health Medical Center. “Kids can follow a vegetarian diet and get all the nutrients they need as long as they eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, seeds and nuts.”
In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes.”
Even in a diet that’s not all plant-based, consumers should make half of their plate fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines, said registered dietitian Audra Nelson, clinical nutrition coordinator for Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. “The food should be as colorful as possible to get the most nutritional benefit.”
On the other half of the plate, the USDA recommends a quarter be filled with grains and the remaining quarter with protein. For vegetarians and vegans, who don’t eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs, that protein group includes beans and peas, soy products, nuts and seeds.
Natalie Nieves, 17, said she spent time researching a plant-based diet to show her parents she would get the nutrients she needed when she became a vegetarian. She was 14 at the time.
“I think the biggest challenge was initially convincing my parents to let me become vegetarian,” said the Coconut Grove teen, a recent graduate of Miami’s Design & Architecture Senior High. “Since nobody else is a vegetarian in my family they were pretty skeptical. They made me come up with all the information as to how I would still get protein without meat.
“But after that, it was pretty easy to just cut meat out of my diet entirely,” said Natalie. “I’ve never really loved eating meat so it wasn’t super hard. I also do think learning to cook made it a lot easier.”
Her mom, Melanie Nieves, says her daughter’s decision has benefited the family, including her two brothers, one of whom is her twin. Both brothers still eat meat.
“She cooks one meal for herself and another for the boys,” Nieves said. “I think becoming a vegetarian has made her very aware of food, and she’s become interested in different foods. She bakes, too. She’s a terrific cook.”
In the Schwartz household, dad Michael, a James Beard award-winning chef, said, “We’ve always been about lots of vegetables and salads.” Lua, one of three children, often prepares her own meals.
“She’ll whip up stuff for herself,” said Schwartz, who recently opened the restaurant Amara at Paraiso in Miami. “She’s pretty adventurous.” Her diet, Schwartz said, has “made family dinners more interesting.”
Lua’s mom, Tamara, a former vegetarian for 24 years — she dropped the diet before Lua was born — said eating a plant-based diet is easier now than when she gave up meat. She recalled going to Burger King after a college basketball game “and I ordered the Whopper without the meat. It had cheese and vegetables. Everyone in the back of the kitchen was staring at the woman who wanted a Whopper without meat. Now, I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelash.”
Nonetheless, she still had reservations about her daughter’s decision to become vegetarian.
“I was concerned that she was still growing, but she’s a girl who knows what she wants,” Tamara Schwartz said, noting she was worried about Lua being deficient in iron and Vitamin B-12.
“Teenage girls need more iron depending on their stage in life,” acknowledged Farkas. While some products may be fortified with iron or Vitamin B-12, it’s not unusual for vegetarians or vegans to take supplements. “Plant-based levels are not absorbed as easily,” Farkas said. “The doctor may need to check their levels.”
A plant-based diet doesn’t guarantee good health, but eating meat doesn’t mean a child is getting the best nutrients either, said Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Miami Herald nutrition columnist. “You can eat pizza and potato chips and that would be vegetarian.
“But there are also so many kids who aren’t eating vegetables and aren’t fit,’’ she added. “We put this diet under a microscope, but a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet has the potential to be healthier because, by definition, kids are eating more plant-based foods. As with any diet, we all need a variety of foods, and we all need more vegetables, fruits and whole grains in our diet. “
It’s crucial to read labels because some foods can be high in fat and sodium. “Veggie burgers can have a long list of ingredients,” Talamas said.
Andrea Duclos is a West Palm Beach vegan who has raised her daughter Marlowe, now 7, on a vegan diet. She writes about their lifestyle and travels on a blog called ohdeardreablog.com
Duclos became a vegetarian at age 14 “because I didn’t have any desire to eat animals.” She switched to a vegan diet in her early 20s.
“I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Animals were still being tortured. I decided to take the next step.”
Veganism has been a positive diet for Marlowe, she said. “My daughter almost never gets sick,” said Duclos, whose husband, Alex Bustamante, is a chef at the Breakers’ Echo in Palm Beach but primarily eats vegan at home.
Duclos makes Marlowe smoothies with “two to three handfuls of spinach or kale.” She loves kale and the fermented drink Kombucha.
From time to time, she’ll have a gummy-flavored calcium supplement, but “I think she’d be totally fine without it,” said Duclos.
Ensuring the family gets enough nutrients “is a matter of putting the effort in it,” said Duclos, who wrote a cookbook in 2015 called “The Plantiful Table: Easy, From-the-Earth Recipes for the Whole Family.”
Finding vegan choices is much easier now, she said. “I used to go to the store and find maybe one or two types of vegan ice cream,” Duclos said. “Now I go to Whole Foods and there are rows upon rows of different flavors.”
Jodi Mailander Farrell, a Miami Herald restaurant critic whose daughter Lucy is a vegetarian, said that her daughter’s plant-based diet “made me much more aware of looking to see if restaurants provided at least one or two vegetarian options that weren’t just side dishes.”
Restaurants are much better about doing that, she said.
“I’m much more interested in checking out how creative restaurants get with vegetables now,” said Mailander Farrell. “I think that’s a challenge restaurants will have to rise to more and more, and it’s a real test of a chef’s talents.”
If your child wants to become a vegan or vegetarian
▪ “Kids need calcium and Vitamin D for bone health,” plus it’s vital for muscle, heart and nerve functions, Talamas said. Alternative milk drinks like almond, rice or pea milk should offer 20 to 40 percent of daily calcium needs and should also be fortified with Vitamin D. Drink the unsweetened version, either original or vanilla. Shake milk well before serving because calcium can settle on the bottom.
▪ Some healthy foods like beet greens, Swiss chard and spinach contain calcium, but they’re high in oxalates, or organic acids, which means calcium isn’t absorbed as well, Farkas said. Sources of well-absorbed calcium include kale, collard greens, bok choy, soybeans and tofu. Shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms are also a source of Vitamin D. Orange juice can be fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, but don’t overdo juices because of their high sugar content.
▪ “Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron,” said Farkas, so eat Vitamin C foods and iron-rich foods at the same time. Good sources of iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereals. Prime sources of Vitamin C include oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers and sweet potatoes. Broccoli, spinach, kale, chard, collard greens, mustard greens and bok choy are high in iron and Vitamin C.
▪ “If completely vegan, one of the biggest concerns is getting enough Vitamin B-12,” said Nelson. The vitamin is primarily found in animal products. Aside from B-12 supplements, there is some B-12 in certain nutritional yeast products and fortified cereals.
▪ Look for protein-rich foods. Plain Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt without added sugar, said Talamas. A cup of farro, for instance, has 11 grams of protein. Other vegetarian protein sources include lentils, beans, whole grains, peas, spinach, spirulina (a blue-green algae), nuts and nut butters.
▪ Zinc sources include beans, wheat germ, tofu, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, nuts and seeds.