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Are you a vegetarian raising meatless children? Or has your child decided to become a vegetarian?

Most people unfamiliar with vegetarianism have concerns. They are worried that being vegetarian is a health risk, and that only diets that include meat can meet a person's nutritional needs. So, is the risk of iron-deficiency anemia real for vegetarian children?

I was raised without meat, and now have two vegetarian children myself. Not eating meat is the most natural thing in the world for me, and it didn't occur to me that raising vegetarian children could be controversial. But it is, and omnivores everywhere have questions about raising children on a meatless diet.

Those questions certainly include concerns over the social aspects of a vegetarian child. Is it really fair to expose your kid to bullies because you put Quorn burgers in her lunch box? While bullying is a concern indeed, it seems a little silly to be concerned over offering a child healthy food. Obese kids get bullied as well, actually. But back to health.

Vegetarians are as nutritionally diverse as omnivores. While a vegetarian diet can be extremely healthy, it is absolutely also possible to be a junk-food vegetarian with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Iron-deficiency anemia is the largest concern. Meat is a convenient source of iron to those who eat it, so how do meatless folks get their iron?

Research has indeed shown that vegetarians have fewer red blood cells than meat eaters. Iron-deficiency anemia is serious business, especially in children, so it's no wonder that parents of new vegetarians, grandparents, or friends are worried about this. Iron-deficiency anemia can lead to growth problems in children, as well as trouble concentrating, fatigue, brittle nails, headaches, and many other health problems. Unless there are iron-absorption issues, this type of anemia can be prevented (and cured, if it's already too late) by eating a healthy and balanced diet, which include many iron-rich foods. For vegetarians, some great sources of iron are:

  • Spirulina 
  • Spinach
  • Red lentils
  • Kidney beans
  • Peas
  • Tofu (soy beans)
  • Dried apricots and prunes
  • Broccoli
  • Curly kale
  • Brown rice
  • Beets
  • Kelp

Many people assume that vegetarians should be taking an iron supplement. Supplementation can become a necessary step when a person already has anemia or is at risk of developing it. Iron supplements, like any dietary supplements, should never become a substitute for a health diet, however. Vegetarians can get all their iron through food, but only if their diet is varied and well-balanced. Only so-called non-heme iron is available in vegetarian products, and this type is not as easily absorbed as the meaty heme iron. Fresh fruits are very important for this reason, because vitamin C aids the absorption of iron. Those who are worried about their children not getting enough iron can make them nettle leaf tea, which is very rich in iron but also has vitamins A, C, D and K, and calcium, potassium, phospherous, and sulphur.

Nettles contain so many vitamins and minerals that they can easily become a natural, more easily absorbed, multivitamin! It's clear, then, that the risk of anemia is very real for children who eat poor-quality diets. Vegetarian children are especially vulnerable, but even meat-eaters run the risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia if their diets are lacking. Junk food lifestyles, where "vegetarians" eat everything except meat and fresh produce, is going to leave gaps, which is obviously not a good idea for growing children, or anyone else. The risks of anemia are eliminated through a healthy diet, and in extreme cases supplementation. Those who want to have more information about their children's health can get it through regular blood tests. If you are a pregnant vegetarian, you may like to read about the best iron-rich foods for pregnant women.

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