The tips in this article may be of interest not only to parents of vegetarian children but also to all parents who are concerned about whether their child receives all the necessary nutrients for their growth, development and health.
Properly planned vegetarian diets, including vegan ones, are healthy and suitable for all stages of the life cycle, including childhood. Raising vegetarian kids does not have to be a challenge. But it is important to be aware of nutrition concerns around vegetarian diets.
Interestingly, the body of children who are vegetarians from birth, is very well adapted to such a diet and effectively absorbs and produces micronutrients necessary for optimal health. But it’s always good to know what to pay special attention to when you’re raising a vegetarian.
There is not a single element in meat that cannot be obtained from other products. Therefore, the exclusion of meat from a diet is not a problem at all. But the rest of the animal products need to be compensated properly. Let’s focus on the main points.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential. This means that our body cannot produce them by itself, they must come from food. If your child does not eat fish, you need to make sure that they receive omega-3 fatty acids from other sources.
Omega-3 acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is the primary fatty acid of the Omega-3 family. The best sources of ALA are flaxseed oil and flaxseed, walnuts, canola and hemp oil, chia seeds. EPA and DHA are found almost exclusively in fish and other seafood. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, eel, herring, and sardines are especially important sources of these acids as the fish stores them in its fatty tissue.
The human body can eventually produce EPA and DHA from ALA. It is unclear, however, how much ALA is converted to EPA and DHA and whether this is sufficient for optimal functioning. It is believed that the body of vegetarians is much more efficient at producing EPA and DHA from ALA. In order to achieve the necessary amounts of all the essential fatty acids, it is important to regularly consume the above-mentioned foods – flaxseed oil and flaxseeds, walnuts, canola and hemp oil, chia seeds foods – on a daily basis.
Dairy products are an important source of calcium. I note, however, that recently the view that dairy products are important for strong and durable bones has been questioned. In particular, regular consumption of milk (but not dairy products and cheese) turns out to lead to an increased risk of fractures! But the consumption of cheese, cottage cheese and dairy products has a good effect on health.
The most common sources of calcium, in addition to dairy products, are various types of cabbage, soy products, sesame seeds, beans, peas and nuts (especially almonds).
The absorption of iron by the body depends directly on the source of dietary iron: it can be heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found exclusively in animal products and is better absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant foods and is absorbed worse. However, it has been observed that the body of vegetarians adapts and absorbs non-heme iron much better than the body of carnivores.
Children during the period of active growth absorb iron very efficiently.
The following plant foods are a good source of iron: tofu, soybeans, parsley, lentils, all kinds of beans, tomato juice, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, wheat products (bread, couscous, bulgur, semolina), spirulina.
Concomitant use of iron with vitamin C improves the body’s absorption of iron. Therefore, it is good to add fruits and vegetables (which are a good source of vitamin C) to all meals if possible.
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs. Strict vegetarians who do not consume such products should not forget to periodically take this vitamin in the form of supplements.
Children aged 0 to 4, regardless of their diet, need to take synthetic vitamin D at a dose of 10 mcg per day.
In winter, children over the age of 4 who follow a strict vegetarian diet (do not eat animal products at all) should also take 10 mcg of vitamin D daily. Why so? In summer, vitamin D is synthesized in the skin under the influence of ultraviolet light. If your child spends time outside (at least 15-20 minutes every day), this should be enough to replenish his vitamin D. In winter, when our exposure to ultraviolet rays is diminished, it is hardly possible to get enough of the vitamin.
In general, this vitamin is found mainly in animal products, such as cod liver and fatty fish, and to a lesser extent also in meat, eggs and dairy products.
In developed countries the process of so-called fortification, or enrichment of plant alternatives to dairy, fish and meat products is widely used. Manufacturers add iron, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and other micronutrients to sub foods. However, the situation with fortification differs between countries. There are still many countries which do not have the legislation or even the guidelines for fortification. Raising vegetarian kids can be easy or challenging depending on where you live and how advanced the fortification of sub foods is.
Other things to pay attention to while raising vegetarian kids
The key to the health of children (and adults) is diversity. Ideally the diet of your child (and yourself) should contain all of the following categories of foods: fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, mushrooms, cereals and cereal products, oils, legumes.
An important indicator of whether your child is getting enough nutrients from the diet is their growth, well-being and level of energy. Some scientists note that vegetarian children initially grow slower than their peers, but by adolescence the difference in growth is neutralized.
Remember: children imitate the habits (including the food habits) of their parents. Make sure you start with yourself!