When reality television personality Bethany Frankel announced on the cover of a popular parenting magazine that she was raising her toddler as a vegetarian, she was criticized by both the media and parents around the country. People called her, “crazy” and called her decision “child abuse.” I wasn’t worried.
My colleague’s three-year-old son became a vegetarian by preference. Though her husband was in a panic, she wasn’t worried either.
So it raises the question that I hear over and over ... is it safe for your child to be vegetarian?
The short answer: Yes. Absolutely. Yes!
The long answer: Vegetarian and vegan diets can safely and healthfully meet all nutritional requirements for infants and children.
Everywhere you look in the grocery store, new vegetarian and vegan options are available for kids. And it’s no surprise; the Center for Disease Control estimates that one in 200 children and adolescents are vegetarian.
Before going any farther, it is important to explain that there are significant variations in the term “vegetarian.” According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, fowl, or seafood or products containing these foods. A vegetarian may include eggs (ovo-vegetarian) or dairy (lacto-vegetarian) products. Diets devoid of all animal products are called vegan.
The biggest concern with vegetarian diets for children is the risk of inadequate intake of nutrients that are required for growth and development. Vegetarian diets are actually higher in fiber, vitamins, and many minerals, and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Though, like any healthy diet, some nutrients need special attention for vegetarian kids.
- Protein- a big misconception is that a vegetarian diet is automatically protein deficient. Non-meat sources of protein are abundant in grocery stores and even school lunch. Nut butters (like peanut butter); dairy products, soymilk and soy products (edamame, tofu), beans (including spreads like hummus) and whole grains are all appropriate, well utilized sources of protein.
- Calcium and vitamin D - this is easy if your child continues to consume dairy. But even if your family is following a vegan diet, many specialty foods like tofu and soymilk and juices are available fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
- Vitamin B12- one of the best sources of vitamin B12 is fortified grains, found in cereals and breads. Vegan children, as well as adults, should receive a multiple vitamin with B12 to ensure that this important vitamin is adequate.
- Iron- one of the most common deficiencies in all children, including carnivores. Those green leafy vegetables are full of iron, and are best absorbed when paired with a high vitamin C containing food (oranges, tomatoes).
Consider discussing the use of a multivitamin with your physician or Registered Dietitian to be certain that your child is receiving adequate amounts of micronutrients. With a little bit of planning and education, vegetarian and vegan diets can provide the building blocks of a healthy, well nourished child ... maybe even healthier than a meat eating child.