An increasing number of blogs by “ethical mums” have sparked discussions about the appropriateness of imposing vegetarianism, veganism or pescatarianism on their children.
Some view these diets as restrictive and query whether the removal of meat or even all animal products from a child’s diet is healthy given their extra dietary needs for growth and development.
But what does the research say? Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?
Foods derived from animals are rich in protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B12.
But research shows that children who are raised as vegetarians grow and develop at the same rate as meat-eaters. They receive mostly the same amount of protein, energy and other key nutrients that children need.
In fact, vegetarian diets that are rich in fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes (such as pulses, beans and canned soybeans and lentils), seeds and nuts are protective. They provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, particularly chronic disease.
According to the American Dietetic Association:
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Diets need to be well planned
The caveat, however, is that the diets need to be well planned.
Vegetarianism refers to the absence of eating meat (including fowl and seafood) or products containing these foods. Different types exist. Lacto-ovo vegetarianism includes dairy foods and eggs, whereas ovo-vegetarianism only includes eggs.
Veganism or total vegetarianism avoids all animal flesh plus any products from animals such as eggs and dairy products. In contrast, pescatarianism includes fish. Even within these variations, the extent to which animal sources are avoided varies.
Many children are born into families that are vegetarian for cultural, religious, health, ethical or economic reasons.
In high-income countries, ethical reasons are more common – and the trend for vegetarianism is increasing.
Supplementary foods for vegetarians
Research shows that being vegetarian as a child does not contribute to disordered eating. And adolescent vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and healthier attitude towards eating than their omnivore counterparts.
Children’s dietary needs can be met by replacing meat with legumes (such as canned soybeans or lentils) in casseroles, curries, stir fries and bolognese sauces, thereby providing much-needed energy, protein, iron and zinc.
According to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, a cup of cooked legumes is equivalent to a serve of cooked meat in energy and comparable nutrients.
Whole grains, seeds and nuts will also provide protein, essential fatty acids, zinc and B-group vitamins. Using spreads such as hummus, peanut paste and nut-spreads in children’s lunches and snacks will help.
Ensuring children have daily serves of dairy foods will provide protein, calcium, B12 and other B vitamins.
Dietary swaps for iron and B-vitamin fortified breakfast cereals and bread also make a significant difference.
Adding fruit or vegetables rich in vitamin C to a meal or snack will increase the absorption of non-heme iron. Iron in food comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. Plants have only non-heme iron, which is not as well-absorbed.
It is not necessary to ensure that we match different protein plant sources to make a “complete” protein as long as we eat a wide range of sources over the day.
Challenges of veganism
Veganism is much more challenging, particularly for meeting B12, iodine, calcium and vitamin D needs.
Fortified soy products such as soy milk help but vegan children need to take a regular B12 source and have their diet reviewed by an accredited practising dietitian.
In a culture built upon farming meat, it is taxing to be a vegetarian in Australia. To date, there hasn’t been any suggestion that ex-vegetarians eating meat is harmful compared to meat-eating most of the time.
The take-home message is that with careful dietary planning it is very possible for children to be vegetarian and healthy.
In fact, vegetarians enjoy more health benefits compared to meat-eaters. Although there aren’t any guidelines as such, it is useful to have children checked by their GP every six months and, if vegan, to take a regular source of B12 and to visit an accredited practising dietitian.