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 groups:
- 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 says.
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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