Is a vegetarian diet safe for kids?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Is a vegetarian diet safe for kids?
Curtis Stone's sweet corn and zucchini ratatouille

Dieticians disagree on many different things when it comes to nutrition, but generally agree that people eating well-balanced vegetarian diets live longer and are more healthy. As well as the positive environmental impacts of plant-based diets, vegetarians also present with lower incidences of cancer, intestinal and cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes and many other chronic illnesses.

Is a vegetarian diet safe for kids?

However, many vegetarian parents still ask whether it's safe for them to raise their children on a meat-free diet, considering meat and fish contain many vitamins and nutrients essential to healthy growth and development in children.

Cook Curtis's sweet corn and zucchini ratatouille (pictured above)

Kate Marsh, accredited dietitian and co-author of The Low GI Vegetarian Cookbook, answered some of our questions.

So is vegetarianism safe for kids?

"Yes," she says. "A well-planned vegetarian diet can meet nutritional needs for all age groups." "In fact," she adds, "studies have shown that the growth of vegetarian and vegan children, if meals are well planned, is similar to that of non-vegetarian children."

How young is too young?

The American Dietetic Association writes: "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes." (Position and Practice Papers, Jul 2009, Volume 109, Issue 7).

This makes sense considering all babies are born lacto-ovo vegetarians — drinking only their mother's milk for the first few months of life. The key phrase here is well planned. Helping yourself to extra servings of potato chips containing a lot of saturated fat and salt is obviously not going to promote a healthy lifestyle for your family.

"Vegetarian diets are suitable for all age groups," Kate says. "But they may take more careful planning to ensure adequate nutrition for younger age groups when they eat smaller amounts."

In recipes: Kids' party favourite: Honey Joys

Key nutrients for kids (and how to get them)

"An adequate intake of protein is important for a child's growth and development," says Kate.

Some tips for meeting kids' protein needs include:

  • Using legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and canned or dried beans regularly in your meals
  • Choosing wholegrains such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth
  • Including dairy or soy products regularly including milk, yoghurt, soy milk and tofu
  • Incorporating nuts and seeds in your diet most days.

Kate says: "Iron is also important for a child's growth and development, and in particular is needed for brain development in infants and early childhood. Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, and also helps to maintain a healthy immune system."

Tips for meeting iron needs include:

  • Eating legumes, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains regularly
  • Including a vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable at each meal

"Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth," Kate says. "And is particularly important in children and teenagers while they are building up their peak bone mass."

Tips for meeting your child's calcium needs include:

  • Consuming calcium-rich foods daily including dairy products or calcium-fortified products
  • Including other plant-based sources of calcium regularly such as hard tofu, almonds, unhulled tahini, dried figs, kale, broccoli and Asian greens.
  • Limiting their intake of salt and caffeine found in tea, coffee, cola and 'energy' drinks which reduces absorption
  • Making sure that they get enough vitamin D from sensible sunlight exposure.

In pics: Vegetarian family recipes

"Zinc is important to keep kids' immune systems strong (to fight infections) and for healthy skin, hair and nails," Kate says. Tips for meeting kids' zinc needs include:

  • Eating legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains regularly
  • Using sprouted legumes (eg mung beans) in salads and sandwiches.

Kate also recommends Vitamin B12 which "is needed to make red blood cells, and for development of a healthy nervous system".

Tips include:

  • If you eat them, include dairy products and eggs in your family's diet regularly
  • If you follow a vegan diet, choose soymilk fortified with vitamin B12. Some vegetarian burgers, sausages and yeast extracts are also fortified with vitamin B12

Related article: Nutrition for kids — what to feed them and when

Vegetarian meal ideas for kids

Tacos with beans, salad and mashed avocado

  • Home-made fried rice with brown rice, vegetables and cubes of marinated tofu
  • Lentil bolognaise
  • Vegetarian lentil shepherd's pie
  • Vegetarian sausages with mashed potato and vegies.

    Vegetarian snack ideas:

  • Fruit smoothies
  • Hummus with vegetable sticks
  • Wholegrain crackers with peanut butter
  • Fruit salad with yoghurt
  • Trail mix (dried fruit, nuts and seeds) – not suitable for young children.

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