The childhood years lay the foundation for the rest of a person's life. Habits formed during this stage are hard to change, and dietary habits are no exception. A healthy and varied vegetarian diet during childhood sets the tone for a healthy and active life. Despite the fact that vegetarianism is on the rise in the western world, some misconceptions remain — and if you were not already wondering what your vegetarian child needs to stay healthy, others will likely put this topic on the agenda and make you doubt the common wisdoms you've grown accustomed to.
Healthy Development In Vegetarian Children
If your child has been a vegetarian since conception, you already know that a healthy and varied vegetarian diet offers an excellent start to life. You have gone from vegetarian pregnancy bump to breastfeeding or formula feeding, past the introduction of solid foods, and now have a growing, walking, talking, thinking, and (very!) active child. What has changed?
Your growing child has ever-increasing calorie needs, but their stomachs haven't yet caught up with the rest of them! Vegetarian kids tend to get fewer calories from fat, as well as eating more fibrous diets than their meat-eating peers. Lower-fat diets that are higher in fiber cause your kids to feel full sooner, but they’re not done yet, they’re still in need of more calories.
Are your vegetarian kids a little smaller than average, like mine are? You may be interested to know that research indicates that your veggie kid may grow a little more slowly than their meat-eating friends, but also that they will catch up with their meat-eating peers by the time they reach adulthood.
When it comes to IQ, studies actually show vegetarian kids to score slightly higher than meat-eaters at an average of 118 points. That may not be down to their vegetarianism, because correlation still doesn’t equal causation, but it’s something, something to brag about, when a busybody starts questioning whether veggie kids can really grow up to be healthy, no?
Should you and your family be vegan, you are especially likely to be met with raised eyebrows from your social circle. Can vegan diets truly satisfy the needs of growing children? Dietician Heather Russell from the Vegan Society told SteadyHealth that "well-planned vegan diets are suitable for every member of the family," adding: "Fortified foods and supplements help you and your children to meet your nutritional needs."
"It is essential that every vegan has a reliable source of vitamin B12 in their diet. Once your baby is six months old and weaning begins, work towards including fortified food in every meal. Unsweetened fortified soy milk alternative or nutritional yeast flakes can be used in cooking, and plain fortified soy yogurt alternative can be offered as part of a meal. Once your child is one year old, unsweetened fortified soy milk alternative can be offered as a drink too. If using fortified foods, aim for a daily intake of 1 microgram (mcg) from one year of age, increasing to 2mcg at seven years old and 3mcg at 15 years old. Using double the recommended dietary intake is safe, and will help to ensure that your child is absorbing enough. Alternatively, discuss the use of a supplement with a health professional."
Essential Nutrients Your Growing Vegetarian Kids Shouldn't Miss Out On
How New Vegetarians Can Help Their Kids Transition To A Meat-Free Diet
What if you're new to being vegetarian as a family, and you are making the transition to a meatless diet together? Not being accustomed to vegetarian foods, you are asking yourself much more than whether your child's nutritional needs are being met. Exactly how can you successfully help your child or children make the change?
Reed Mangels PhD, a registered dietician with the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, has tips for you:
- Identify foods and meals that your family already eats and likes that are meatless
- Identify foods and meals that your family already eats and likes that can easily be made meatless. (One example: making chili with beans and either bulgur, veggie crumbles, or textured soy protein in place of meat. Another example, making a hearty vegetable-bean soup using a vegetable broth, home-made or commercial, in place of chicken broth.) These familiar foods and foods with minor modifications will help to ease the transition.
- Find several cookbooks and/or websites that have vegetarian recipes that are in line with your family's cooking style. For instance, if your family likes quick, easy meals, this is not the time to seek out gourmet recipes. Try some recipes. Experiment with foods like tofu, beans, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Some families like to use meat alternatives and some don't. These foods, like veggie burgers, unchicken, deli slices, etc can be helpful if you're trying to make a favorite family recipe meatless.
"Make sure everyone is on-board about this change. Provide age-appropriate explanations for children about reasons for the change. If it's for the animals, it might be a good time to arrange a trip to a farm sanctuary where your children can see the animals that they are helping. Children may appreciate having some familiar foods like peanut butter sandwiches, pasta, and burrritos. If the family is transitioning to a vegan diet, make sure everyone is getting reliable sources of vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D."
What Should Vegetarian Children Be Eating?
Raising healthy and strong veggie kids doesn't take more effort than raising healthy meat-eating kids, but it does require some thought — ensuring that your child gets plenty of tasty foods from all major food groups, covering all their nutritional needs, is essential.
What nutrients should your child's vegetarian diet include? These are the things to watch out for:
- Protein: Beans, cheese, eggs, tofu, and nuts are all excellent sources. Registered dietician Reed Mangels, with the Vegetarian Resource Group, points out that children from North America who otherwise eat a varied diet that contains enough calories aren't going to have any problems obtaining enough protein, neither is it necessary, as was once advised, to make sure to get proteins from multiple plant sources in a single meal.
- Iron: Vegetarians have ample access to iron through such things as leafy greens, dried apricot, and beans. Did you know that consuming foods rich in vitamin C on a regular basis helps boost iron absorption?
- Vitamin D: Comes from sunlight, eggs, and fortified foods. Anyone who doesn't have regular access to any of these should take a supplement. Dietician Heather Russell from the Vegan Society advises: "In the UK, it is recommended that breastfed babies are given vitamin D drops from birth. Note that vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 from lichen are plant sources." She adds that vitamin A, C, and D supplements are recommended for kids "from six months to five years of age, and, beyond this age, vitamin D supplementation is recommended during autumn and winter" with year-round supplementation being appropriate for some groups.
- Vitamin B12: Comes from animal proteins such as milk and eggs, as well as fortified foods.
- Calcium: Leafy greens, broccoli, figs, beans and almonds are all sources, in addition to dairy products.
- Iodine: Heather notes that "for vegan children, the need to consider iodine supplementation increases as weaning progresses".
- Omega 3: "Although there is a need for research into the health benefits," Heather told SteadyHealth, "supplementation of long chain omega-3 fats from microalgae could be considered".
Heather further notes that "the Vegan Society sells a daily supplement designed for vegans, and half a tablet can be given to children aged two to 12 years", and she advises parents of vegan children taking alternative supplements to consult with their healthcare providers to ensure these supplements are age-appropriate.