More often than not, parents face the struggle of trying
to get their kids to eat vegetables. But what happens when your child decides
they want to ditch the meat instead and become a vegetarian?
Suzanne Matthews’ 10-year-old daughter, Mia, came home
from school one day and proudly announced that she wanted to become a
vegetarian. Mia had decided that eating animals was cruel and she no longer
wanted meat in her diet. Suzanne didn’t know what to do and turned to the
experts for help.
Dietician Zelda Ackerman says children can follow a
vegetarian diet and be healthy, especially if they include dairy products and
eggs. In fact, studies have shown that the growth of vegetarian children is similar
to those who eat omnivorous diets. “It does take a bit more planning to make sure they do
receive all the nutrients but there should be no reason for concern,” she says.
Don’t forget to supplement
Children following a vegetarian diet typically need a
multivitamin and iron supplement. Sometimes an omega-3 supplement is also
necessary, but it’s a good idea to chat to a dietician who can advise you. Children
following vegetarian diets typically obtain insufficient amounts of iron, zinc
and vitamin B12. Animal products are the only reliable source of vitamin B12
and are also the best sources of iron and zinc. These nutrients can be found in
plant products too, but due to poorer absorption of plant-based iron,
vegetarians need to almost double the amount. Cooking in iron pots and adding
vitamin C rich food will increase iron intake and absorption.
Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies both cause anaemia. When
signs appear, the deficiency is already quite severe. Signs of a vitamin B12
deficiency include weakness, painful red tongue, weight loss, poor appetite and
diarrhoea. A longstanding vitamin B12 deficiency can impair brain growth and
development in babies and young children. Symptoms of an iron deficiency
include tiredness, irritability, crying, social behaviour changes, pale skin and
pink conjunctiva, pica (eating e.g. ice, clay, starch), inflamed tongue or
mouth, poor sleep, poor appetite, poor concentration, delayed milestones and
frequent infections. A zinc deficiency can lead to poor appetite; weight loss;
increased susceptibility to infections; altered taste and smell; poor growth;
poor wound healing; and hair loss.
Supporting your child
If your child, like Mia, decides they want to follow a
vegetarian diet, Ackerman advises getting help from a registered dietician so
you can plan a balanced diet.
Children need to eat a variety of food from all the food
- Whole grains and starchy
vegetables: e.g. brown rice, whole wheat pasta, sweet potato, potato, corn
- Meat alternatives: e.g.
beans, peas, lentils, soya, omega-3 enriched eggs, nuts, nut butters
- Dairy products: e.g. milk,
milk fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), yoghurt, cheese, cottage
cheese, cream cheese
- Healthy plant oils: e.g.
avocado, olives, canola oil, olive oil, canola margarine, chia seeds, ground linseeds.
“Although plant foods contain sufficient amounts of
protein, none of those, with the exception of soya, are what we call complete
proteins,” says Ackerman. “A complete protein means that it contains all nine
essential amino acids and can be used to build muscle. Make sure your child
receives complete protein by combining a cereal and a legume in the same meal,
for example rice and lentils or pasta and beans.”
Plan and prepare healthy, balanced meals. “If you notice
that your child always excludes one specific food group, give some meals or
snacks that only contain food from that specific food group,” she suggests. “For
example, if your child always avoids his/her fruit, only pack fruit for school
or provide fruit as a mid-afternoon snack.”
So how do you keep the entire family happy? Ackerman
suggests making combined dishes like vegetable lasagne or butternut soup on
days when the whole family is eating a vegetarian main meal. “On other days you
can plan meals in a way that you can only substitute the meat for a meat
alternative like soya mince instead of mince, or beans instead of sausage,” she
You can also prepare extra portions of vegetarian dishes that are easy to
freeze and take out on days when there is no time to cook. Although there are
many commercial vegetarian products are available, Ackerman warns against
relying on these. “They often contain lots of salt and sometimes preservatives,”
she explains. “Aim to use them two to three times a week max.”
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