Parents who have been vegetarians for years may find themselves questioning whether eliminating meat from their child's diet is a good idea. Feeding your child a vegetarian diet can have immediate and long-lasting benefits, provided you do it correctly. Understanding the advantages and potential drawbacks of a vegetarian diet is the first step in deciding whether the vegetarian choice is the right one for your child.
Advantages of a Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarian children benefit both from what they eat and what they avoid. Feeding kids plenty of vegetables and plant-based foods right from the start helps set up healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime, given that food preferences usually develop during the first few years of life (see References 2). Children who avoid meat products also have a reduced intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, pesticides, preservatives and food additives, and are less likely to risk exposure to meat-borne illnesses (see References 2). Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian kids tend to grow up just as strong and healthy as meat-eating kids; vegetarian children often grow slower during the earliest years of life, but catch up to their meat-eating peers later on, reports the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (see References 3).
Limitations of a Vegetarian Diet
One of the biggest concerns for vegetarian children is making sure they consume sufficient amounts of essential nutrients. Meat-free foods can provide every vitamin and mineral your child needs, but certain nutrients, like iron, are found only in small amounts in vegetarian foods. The concern is even greater for vegan children, who can easily become deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium, reports Reed Mangels, nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group (see References 1). Coaxing kids into eating an adequate volume of food to meet their daily nutrient requirements can be difficult, especially young children who tend to have small, picky appetites.
Special Nutrient Considerations
Raising a healthy vegetarian child may require more dietary planning than for a child with a traditional diet. Sufficient iron intake is a top priority, so make sure your child eats plenty of enriched grains, broccoli, beans, soy products, dried fruits and leafy greens, and serve them with foods high in vitamin C, which increases the body's absorption of iron (see References 2). Vegan children can obtain calcium through beans, green vegetables, tofu, sunflower seeds, and fortified juices and cereals; vitamin B12 through nutritional yeast, cereals, and fortified soy or rice milk; and vitamin D through fortified foods and daily exposure to sunlight. Make sure your child's doctor knows that the child is following a vegetarian diet. The doctor may recommend supplements or multivitamins.
Keeping Vegetarian Kids Healthy
Parents should remember that a vegetarian diet isn't necessarily a healthy one; potato chips, French fries and soda may be meat-free, but they offer little in the way of nutrients. Just like parents of meat-eating children, parents of vegetarian kids need to make sure most of their child's calories come from minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods if they expect their kids to thrive. That means plenty of fruit and vegetables; whole-grain cereals, breads and pastas; beans and legumes; nuts and seeds; and unless your child is following a vegan diet, eggs and dairy. A pediatrician or registered dietician can help create a vegetarian plan for your child if you're worried about her nutrient intake.
- The Washington Post; Kids Can Thrive on a Vegetarian Diet, but Parents Need to Pay Close Attention; Carolyn Butler; December 13, 2010
- La Leche League; Raising a Vegetarian Child; Melanie Wilson; July - August 2000
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start
- The Vegetarian Resource Group; How Many Vegetarians Are There?; Charles Stahler
Kristen Fisher is a freelance writer and editor with professional experience in both print and online media. She has published articles on a wide variety of topics including health, fitness, nutrition, home and food, and her work has appeared in "Connections Magazine" and on Lifescript.com. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in psychology.
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