Some view these diets as restrictive and query whether the removal of meat or even all animal products from a child’s diet is healthy given their extra dietary needs for growth and development.
But what does the research say? Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?
Foods derived from animals are rich in protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B12.
But research shows that children who are raised as vegetarians grow and develop at the same rate as meat-eaters. They receive mostly the same amount of protein, energy and other key nutrients that children need.
In fact, vegetarian diets that are rich in fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes (such as pulses, beans and canned soybeans and lentils), seeds and nuts are protective. They provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, particularly chronic disease.
According to the American Dietetic Association:
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Diets need to be well planned
The caveat, however, is that the diets need to be well planned.
Vegetarianism refers to the absence of eating meat (including fowl and seafood) or products containing these foods. Different types exist. Lacto-ovo vegetarianism includes dairy foods and eggs, whereas ovo-vegetarianism only includes eggs.
Veganism or total vegetarianism avoids all animal flesh plus any products from animals such as eggs and dairy products. In contrast, pescatarianism includes fish. Even within these variations, the extent to which animal sources are avoided varies.
Many children are born into families that are vegetarian for cultural, religious, health, ethical or economic reasons.
In high-income countries, ethical reasons are more common – and the trend for vegetarianism is increasing.
Supplementary foods for vegetarians
Research shows that being vegetarian as a child does not contribute to disordered eating. And adolescent vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and healthier attitude towards eating than their omnivore counterparts.
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Children’s dietary needs can be met by replacing meat with legumes (such as canned soybeans or lentils) in casseroles, curries, stir fries and bolognaise sauces, thereby providing much-needed energy, protein, iron and zinc.
According to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, a cup of cooked legumes is equivalent to a serve of cooked meat in energy and comparable nutrients.