March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Are you raising a vegetarian grade schooler or teen? Are you worried they may not be getting the necessary nutrients in their diet? There are ways to make sure that your child receives enough protein, calcium, and iron for optimal growth and nutrition.
Look at Proteins
All plant proteins contain some of the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that our body cannot produce, and which must be consumed over the course of the day to complete our protein intake. While it was once believed that vegetarians had to consume "incomplete proteins" together at one meal — such as rice and dried beans for lunch — we now know that various proteins can be consumed over the course of a whole day for an optimal amino acid profile. So the rice consumed at lunch can still match up with the beans consumed at dinner.
Eggs, low-fat milk, and tofu are examples of complete proteins; nuts, dried beans and whole grains are examples of some plant foods that add essential amino acids to our total intake. A one-ounce serving (about one-third of a cup) of nuts provides anywhere from three to six grams of protein and 160 to 200 calories. Young vegetarians not only must meet protein requirements for growth, but activity as well. For example, an active teen vegetarian weighing 140 pounds could require 90 to 100 grams of protein daily.
"Usually teens prefer a meal plan that has five or six smaller meals or snacks. Remember to keep total calories within your needs," said Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD. "Each of the mini-meals should have 10 to 20 grams of protein — the amount in one-half cup dried beans, and one ounce of cheese, with some pistachios or almonds. Or, they could also try a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread with eight ounces of low-fat Greek yogurt."
For vegetarians who consume them, dairy products like low-fat milk and yogurt are also concentrated sources of calcium, which is needed for optimal bone development. Other calcium containing options include green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, kale, mustard greens, bok choy and broccoli, as well as fortified orange juice, fortified cereals and fortified soy milk.
The Importance of Iron
Nuts provide a nice dose of heart healthy fats, essential fatty acids, iron and other trace minerals, and certain B vitamins.
Plant iron sources are not as well absorbed as animal iron, so care must be taken to emphasize good sources such as lentils and dried beans, spinach, iron-enriched breads and cereals, and tempeh and soybeans. Pairing these foods with good sources of vitamins C like orange juice, grapefruit and tomatoes will improves plant iron absorption.