An exert from an article published on Kids and Vegetarian Eating…
It’s one thing to opt for vegetarian eating as an adult – but is it a healthy option for a growing child? As a dietitian who consults to the Vegetarian Network of Victoria, this is familiar territory to Mark Surdut. The clients who come to him seeking advice on kids and vegetarian eating generally fall into two groups. There are those whose children – sometime teenagers but sometimes younger who want to be vegetarian and parents who are vegetarian themselves and wonder if a meat free diet will meet a growing child’s needs for nutrients.
The bottom line says Surdut is that vegetarian diets, including vegan diets that exclude dairy food and eggs, can be a healthy way of eating for kids –as long as they are well planned.
But there are pitfalls. One of them is that because vegetarian diets are high in fibre, they’re very filling – so it’s easy to fill up a child size stomach without delivering sufficient kilojoules or a broad range of nutrients, he points out. The solution he says is focussing on a variety of different foods. Surdut recognises that this can present a challenge in very fussy eaters.
As for meeting iron and protein needs, this may be easier with a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products and/or eggs.
“On a vegan diet, iron and protein rich sources are limited mainly to legumes and nuts and growing adolescents need to eat a lot of these foods to get sufficient protein. You could argue that there is protein in whole grains – but it’s pretty dilute. Soy foods like tofu have a protein profile that’s almost identical to meat and are safe to include – the key is to eat them in moderation and as one of a mix of different plant proteins. Then of course there are the vegan meat-like sausages and patties, rich in protein. A dietitian can guide you on the recommended protein load”.
One nutrient that’s elusive for both adults and children on a vegetarian diet is vitamin B12 which is found mostly in animal foods including eggs and dairy food.
Although including foods fortified with B12 or B12 supplements are one way of getting this vitamin they may not guarantee enough, he says and advises both adults and children on a vegan diet to get their B12 levels checked.
“You might need to have them checked once a year depending on the result, but your GP can guide you on this.”
Vegans may we need other supplements too such as Calcium – these can be addressed by a dietitian.
But although the issue of feeding vegetarian diets to kids can sometimes raise eyebrows, Surdut points out that there are non-vegetarian eating styles with the potential to leave children very short on nutrients too!
“One of them is a typical teenage diet that can include a lot of food but not a lot of nutrients. I often reassure parents of adolescents who’ve taken up a vegetarian diet that there are a lot of teenagers who eat a limited non-vegetarian diet and who turn out okay – so why do we make such a fuss about vegetarian teenagers, especially those who are taking a real interest in planning their diets properly?”