Vegetarianism has gone completely mainstream. Sometimes, children and teenagers make the decision to eat a vegetarian diet, other times vegetarian parents look to raise vegetarian children.
In either case, parents often express some concerns about their growing children consuming a diet free of meat. Will they have all that they need to grow and develop properly?
What special concerns are there for children when choosing a vegetarian diet?
Beginning at Birth
Well planned vegetarian diets can provide excellent nutrition for all stages of childhood, from birth on.
In the beginning, an infant’s nutritional needs are best met by consuming exclusively mother’s milk; it helps to boost the baby’s immunities and provides complete nutrition.
For mothers who cannot or would prefer not to breastfeed, high quality soy based infant formula is widely available.
Adding Solid Foods
Solid foods are typically introduced in the middle of the first year of life. The best first foods are soft plant foods such as cereals, mashed fruits, and well cooked vegetables. Babies typically enjoy this time of discovering new foods.
As they grow, toddlers often prefer fruits, vegetables, and grains over meat products, which can be difficult for them to chew.
By the time that they are school aged, vegetarian children will have likely developed a long list of favourite plant based foods.
Teenagers raised on a vegetarian diet are typically more slender than their meat eating friends, and experience fewer problems with acne and allergies.
Making Up For Meat
One of the most obvious things that meat has to offer is protein. While it is true that meat provides the body with complete, high quality protein, vegetable proteins can be just as well absorbed.
Meat also contains important nutrients such as iron, zinc, folate, vitamin B12, thiamine and essential fatty acids; vegetarians must search for other sources of these nutrients.
The search may be well worth the effort, however, since meat consumption also introduces saturated fats and cholesterol into the body, which can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
To make up for the iron normally consumed in meat, vegetarian children must eat other iron-rich foods.
The iron from these food sources isn’t as easily absorbed by the body as iron from meat, however, so it is important that your child consume plenty of vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of iron.
Vegetarian babies should be fed iron fortifies cereal for the first two years.
Parents sometimes worry that a vegetarian diet will lack the protein necessary for a child’s growth and development.
A varied menu of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits supplies plenty of protein, so fears of a protein deficiency are rarely founded.
Children do need a bit more fat in their diets than adults, but this fat is healthier when it comes from non-animal sources.
Good choices for vegetarian children include avocados, nut butters, and soybean products, including soy “hot dogs” and “hamburgers.”
Vitamin B12 must be consumed in enriched and fortified cereals, breads, soy or rice milk, or nutritional yeast.
If your child doesn’t wish to consume a sufficient quantity of these foods, insist upon a Vitamin B12 supplement of at least 3 micrograms per day. Vitamin D is often mentioned as a concern, too, but getting adequate vitamin D is not difficult.
Simply allow your children to play in the sun for 15-20 minutes each day. That is plenty to allow the body to produce all of the vitamin D that it needs. In areas without sufficient sunlight, simply offer a multivitamin containing vitamin D.
The Bottom Line
Children can be raised on a purely vegetarian diet with terrific results. People choose vegetarianism for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important consideration for feeding children a plant based diet is health.
Lifelong dietary habits are established early in life. Children who learn to eat animal products high in saturated fats are at increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes as adults.
Children who are raised on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and many obesity-related illnesses compared to their peers.
Because of this, they are likely to live longer, healthier lives.