Can a child thrive on a vegetarian diet?

Stacelynn Caughlan Cl.N. C.H.

There are many reasons for becoming vegetarian: Ethical, Health, Environment, Religious, Economic are the most common. In general, studies support vegetarian diets for children – if proper food choices are made. Studies that have indicated that it is a dangerous choice have usually focused on a sub-population that had fed their children a dangerously low calorie diet (namely macrobiotic).

THE BIGGEST MISTAKES VEGETARIANS CAN MAKE:
Simple excluding meat from their diet
Relying on carbohydrate foods such as pasta and bread to make up the bulk of their diet
Becoming overly dependent on high-fat dairy and eggs for protein
Eating refined grains, sugar, margarine, and other non-foods too regularly
Eating too much fibre

BREASTFEEDING
The most important element of a vegetarian babies diet is breastmilk, followed by formula
Breastmilk should be offered for the first two years, especially to vegan children. Only formula should be used as a substitute, soy, dairy, and other milks – even when fortified – are not suitable for infants.
Vegetarian moms have been found to have lower pesticide residues in their milk.

INTRODUCTION OF FOODS
For the first 6 months breastmilk or formula offers all that a child needs nutritionally.
By 6 months other foods should be slowly introduced.

Suggested course of introduction is:

First 6 months: breast milk or formula
4-6 months: iron-fortified cereals
6-8 months: fruits and vegetables
7-10 months: protein foods (soy, legumes)
12+ months: wheat, dairy, nut butters, egg white

If growth is consistent, according to your physician, then quantity of food consumed is not as important as quality: make every bite count! Be aware that vegetarian children are generally lighter than their omnivorous counterparts.

Try to limit high fibre foods and be sure to include high calorie ones (bran muffin vs avocado).

IMPORTANT NUTRIENTS

Calcium
Growing children need the materials to build a body! If dairy is excluded from your child’s diet, be sure to include other calcium rich foods. Fortified products are a good bet as well.

Iron
Iron stores decrease at around 6 months, and breast milk has low quantities, but highly absorbable iron. It is generally recommended that supplementation be provided as iron is so crucial in infant development. Vitamin C foods greatly enhance iron absorption, so try to include one with each meal.

Protein
A diet rich in variety often provides enough protein, but because it is so vital to children, it is a good idea to provide concentrated protein sources. Plant proteins need to be combined to resemble the protein profile our bodies need. A varied diet does this naturally, but learn what makes up a vegetarian “protein combination” and be sure that your child gets this in a 24 hour period. If breastmilk, dairy, or egg is included in the diet, then protein combining is usually not important.

Vitamin B12
B12 can only be found in animal foods, and if these are completely excluded form your diet then supplementation is necessary. Fortified foods such as meat analogues and fortified milk substitutes provide B12.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is not a worry when your child is exposed to sunshine. Alternately, fortified foods or supplementation is required to meet your child’s needs.

Fats
Infants and toddlers require fat for proper development. Breastmilk is rich in essential fatty acids, formula is not. Mothers must eat essential fatty acids for their milk to have ample amounts. Include an oil such as flax in your child’s diet for insurance if there are no other sources being consumed regularly.

‘GROW’ FOODS FOR BABIES UNDER 12 MONTHS

tofu
avocados
quinoa
millet
lentils
avocados
soy milk
soy yogurt
egg yolk
flax meal
sweet potatoes
oatmeal
cantaloupe
mango
apricots
pumpkin
chickpeas
coconut milk
brown rice
spinach
collards/kale
soaked dried fruits
blackstrap molasses
prune juice
kidney beans

Stacelynn Caughlan is a Clinical Nutritionist and Certified Herbalist who specializes in Prenatal and Pediatric Health.