Raising a vegetarian
A dietician explains how to make sure your veggie child eats healthily.
Children born into vegetarian families are often brought up as vegetarians. The family’s reasons for choosing vegetarianism may be related to morality, religion, culture, ethics, environment (food scares like bird flu and mad cow disease), society, economy, politics, taste, or health. Some children also just don’t like meat and would prefer to follow a vegetarian diet.

Can a child get enough nutrition from a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet can satisfy anyone’s nutritional needs. Large-scale studies have shown vegetarianism to increase longevity, improve health, and significantly lower risks of cancer and other diseases like hypertension, diabetes and obesity which are all on the rise in South Africa!

Areas of concern for vegetarian children include:
  • Adequate macro nutrients especially energy for growth.
  • Providing an adequate iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium intake.
Guidelines for parents of vegetarians
  • Be sure you offer 3 meals and 2 to 3 nutritious snacks (healthy snacks like fruit preferably) every day.
  • Your child’s protein intake may be limited on the vegetarian diet, especially if you exclude fish, dairy and/or eggs. If this is the case, try to include soya mince, tofu, legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas or nuts at every meal.
  • If you're a lacto-ovo-vegetarian family, eggs can provide a form of high-quality protein, iron and omega-3 fatty acids (especially if you go for the enriched varieties). Eggs can be eaten daily. Ideally, eggs should be poached or boiled rather than fried in butter or oil if your child is overweight or obese.
  • Vegetarians are at increased risk of osteoporosis according to some research. So, getting enough calcium should be a top priority. Obvious sources for lacto-vegetarians include milk and dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese. Canned fish with bones such as pilchards is also a good option for fish-eating vegetarians.
  • Vegans should try to get their calcium from dark green leafy vegetables, nuts (particularly almonds), seeds, dried fruit, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, flour and fruit juice, and consider taking a calcium supplement.
  • Several studies have shown that the iron status of vegetarians is usually normal, but the risk of iron deficiency is slightly greater because the best sources of highly absorbable iron are animal foods, like red meat, chicken, fish and egg yolk.
  • As a vegetarian, it is important to include the following in your child’s diet: barley, baked beans, tomatoes, apricots and raisins, fortified breakfast cereals, whole-wheat bread, soya mince, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables, because they all contain iron from plant sources.
The iron absorption of food is lowered when the food is eaten with eggs, bran, Ceylon tea and coffee. Try to offer eat iron-rich foods separate from these foods and beverages. Vitamin C rich foods such as oranges help the body to absorb iron.

To conclude, diets that contain no animal protein whatsoever (e.g. vegan diets) can cause a deficiency in those essential amino acids and are recommended under the supervision of a doctor or dietician for anyone with growth needs: infants, children, teenagers, pregnant and breastfeeding women and individuals suffering from wasting diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, or cancer.

Read more about the basics of vegetarianism

Would you encourage your child to be a vegetarian?

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