A friend recently rang Kalila all a fluster asking what we thought about vegetarian diets for young children? It got our Nutritionist Claire thinking and as today is World Vegetarian day, and with many campaigners promoting vegetarianism for environmental reasons, and for a healthier world, we decided to look into it further.
It transpires that our friends daughter’s nursery has recently introduced a new vegetarian menu and this was causing quite a stir amongst the parents, many of whom were outraged. The nursery cares for children from 0-6 years old so very much in their early growing stage and in need of plenty of energy for all the new skills they are acquiring. Most of us will have vegetarian friends all of whom are perfectly fit and healthy but does this translate to the diets of growing children?
The parents at the nursery were complaining that their children were returning home hungry but is that indicative of eating a vegetarian lunch, of not eating enough, or simply eating a lunch without the necessary nutritional mix of carbs, fats and proteins? For there are many benefits to following a vegetarian diet but it does involve replacing animal protein with plant foods rich in protein and essential amino acids, as well as essential vitamins and minerals so that the body gets what it needs.
So what are the experts saying?
We had a little forage online to see what advice is available for parents wishing to introduce a vegetarian diet and those wishing to understand more about it in the case of the nursery above.
National Health Service (NHS UK) – (click here)
They recommend that a child not receiving meat or animal proteins will need to eat at least 3 portions of vegetable proteins and nuts per day to get the correct balance of protein and iron, and to be careful with regards to giving them foods too high or bulky in dietary fibre as this can often result in them being full without actually having consumed a sufficient amount of calories to sustain them. We all know children need energy to grow and develop and so vegetarian and vegan diets do require giving high calorie foods such as bananas, seed & nut butters (for example peanut butter).
This point seems potentially relevant to the nursery scenario. Is the menu too fibre rich and not providing enough calories?
Protein is one of the key food groups that vegetarians need to find in alternative plant sources. Protein is essential for many physiological functions of growth and maintenance including the formation of healthy blood cells and muscle formation. It is required for healthy hair and skin growth. We use it in our immune response (to protect us from illness) and especially in enzymes and hormone health. Protein is essential for life so a vegetarian diet needs to be rich in plant sources such as beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and protein rich grains such as quinoa.
Image courtesy of www.nidirect.or.gov
Kidshealth.org (Click here)
They recommend, as above, the need to provide the right mix of foods. Childrens needs change as they grow and it is important to recognise this when embarking on a vegetarian diet. Toddlers need a lot of essential vitamins and minerals that some vegetarian and vegan diets cannot offer without the addition of fortified cereals or supplements. Toddlers are often picky enough about their food so monitoring what they eat and reinforcing with nutritional supplements where needed may be the only way to ensure they get a varied and balanced diet. A diet that includes eggs and dairy products is generally considered best for growing kids and teens. Careful planning seems to be the key to ensure a good calorific intake for growing children and the right balance of essential nutrients.
Here are nutrients that vegetarians should aim for and some of their best food sources:
- vitamin B12: dairy products, eggs, and vitamin-fortified products, such as cereals, breads, and soy and rice drinks, and nutritional yeast
- vitamin D: milk, vitamin D-fortified orange juice, and other vitamin D-fortified products
- calcium: dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried beans, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks, and cereals
- protein: pulses, dairy products, eggs, tofu and other soy products, dried beans, and nuts
- iron: eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals and bread
- zinc: wheat germ, nuts, fortified cereal, dried beans, and pumpkin seeds
healthychildren.org (Click here)
They highlight the difference in types of vegetarian diet and the need to tailor a child’s diet on the basis of which they follow. We were interested to see these sub-divisions which go deeper than just vegetarian and vegan.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume eggs, dairy products, and plant foods.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products and plant foods but not eggs.
- Vegans eat only plant foods, no eggs or dairy products.
For those not eating dairy and eggs it seems the key concern is Vit D and calcium deficiency, and the lack of meat may give rise to lack of iron, zinc and B12 all of which can delay normal growth and development if not replaced by other food sources or nutritional supplements*.
And back to the protein debate…
Their advice is as follows “Vegetarians may also lack adequate protein sources. As a result, you need to ensure that your child receives a good balance of essential amino acids. As a general guideline, his/her protein intake should come from more than one source, combining cereal products (wheat, rice) with legumes (dry beans, soybeans, peas), for example; when eaten together, they provide a higher quality mixture of amino acids than if either is consumed alone.”
As with the other sources, they agree that a vegetarian diet can be a healthy lifestyle choice even in young and developing children provided that their dietary needs and calorific needs are met by a wide and varied range of foods and supplements. The one diet that they do not recommend is a zen macrobiotic diet for children as this widely restricts the important food groups they can eat and can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies and in some cases more serious illnesses.
Physicians Committee for responsible medicine (Click here)
These experts fully commend a vegetarian diet in both adults and children and promote the health benefits of not eating meat claiming it can lead to a longer life, slimmer and better health. Children raised on a diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses often eat a wider range of fresh produce then their meat eating peers and this provides a template for a healthier diet throughout life. “Perhaps the most important consideration for feeding children is this: Lifelong dietary habits are established at a young age. Children who acquire a taste for chicken nuggets, roast beef, and French fries today are the cancer patients, heart patients, and diabetes patients of tomorrow. Children who are raised on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes will have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and many obesity-related illnesses compared to their counterparts raised on the average diet. Because of this, they will also tend to live years longer.”
They refer to many interesting studies which show vegetarian children can develop at a slower rate than non-vegetarians but that they eventually catch up. They also discuss how animal-protein eating children can reach puberty quicker than their vegetarian counterparts as well as mentioning IQ studies comparing intellect of meat-eaters vs vegetarians. Although results of these last studies are inconclusive as much depends on parental intellect it serves to reassure parents of vegetarian children that there were few differences shown between the two groups.
The other great thing provided on this site are meal plans and portions for each age range of growing children so those considering pursuing a vegetarian diet in their family can see just what foods and in what quantities are required to provide a balanced diet.
An example of which:
1- to 4-Year-Olds
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals: 4 servings
Vegetables: 2-4 tablespoons dark green vegetables , 1/4 to 1/2 cup other vegetables
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Non-Dairy Milks: 1/4 to 1/2 cup legumes, 3 servings breast milk, soy formula, soymilk, or other non-dairy milk
Fruits: 3/4 to 1 1/2 cups
So coming back to the subject of a nursery proposing a vegetarian menu to their children.. should the parents be concerned?
In theory no, as a vegetarian diet can (if properly followed) deliver all of the necessary nutrients that growing children need. And lets not forget that these children are not necessarily following a vegetarian diet at home so we can assume that they will be getting animal proteins at other times.
The focus therefore is on whether the diet plan presented contains enough of the foods and calories to give the children the energy they need to fulfill their day. If mid afternoon they are complaining of empty stomachs and unable to concentrate on the activities then something clearly needs to be re-balanced in the menu. If at home time they are seriously hungry and this is the image that the parents see then it is obviously a cause for concern.
As with most things it all comes down to information. Be informed and find the necessary information to allow you to follow the diet of your choice for you and your family. And if your child’s nursery or school proposes something different then work with them to make sure they have access to expert guidance in planning and implementing a new menu in such a way that the children’s nutritional needs are met.
Kalila is commited to providing mums with balanced information on diet and nutrition. If you liked this article then check out our Healthy Eating series here. And find a range of great family recipes in the Kalila Kitchen here.
*Also consult a Nutritionist, Dietitian or Medical expert before taking dietary supplements as they may interact with other medications.