Is it safe to feed children a vegetarian diet?

Is it safe to feed children a vegetarian diet?

Raising a little vegan requires more planning and nutritional know-how to insure that the child gets enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B-12, and some of the other B-vitamins. Yes, children can grow normally on a diet of grains, legumes, and greens, yet it's a bit risky. A wise parent should seek periodic advice from a nutritionist experienced in vegan diets and practice these precautions:

  • Protein is not a problem, children can get all the proteins they need from plant foods only; especially whole grains, soy products, legumes, and nuts.
  • Calcium may present a challenge, since traditional plant sources of calcium are not big favorites with children. (Good luck getting your child to eat kale and collards.) But many foods today are fortified with calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, so a vegan child can get enough calcium without relying on supplements. Fortified foods, such as cereals and soy beverages, can also be a dietary source of vitamin B-12.
  • Getting enough calories may be another challenge in vegan diets. Veggies have a lot of nutrients per calorie, but not a lot of calories per cup. Tiny tummies fill up faster on lots of fiber, but fewer calories. One way to overcome this problem is to encourage your child to graze on small, frequent feedings that include higher-calorie foods, such as nutbutter sandwiches, California avocados, nuts and seeds (for children over four years of age who can eat them safely), pasta, dried fruits, and smoothies.
  • Vegetarian children should get the nutrients they need from foods rather than pills, since pills don't provide calories, and the nutrients in foods, through the process of synergy, are better for the body. The growth of some vegan children may appear to be slower because vegetarian children, like vegetarian adults, tend to be leaner. A child's position on the growth chart is not an accurate measure of the state of health. Actually, where a child fits on the chart is influenced more by genes than by diet.

Maintaining a vegetarian diet can be more challenging during periods in a person's life when there are extra nutritional needs, such as pregnancy, lactation, childhood, and adolescence. Once the person reaches adulthood, nutritional deficiencies are less of a concern. Even if your children do not remain vegetarians for life, by getting their little bodies accustomed to the taste and feel of a vegetarian diet you have programmed them with a healthy eating pattern that will benefit them throughout life. Vegetarian children, because they get used to the comfortable, after-dinner feeling of a vegetarian meal, tend to shun, or at least don't overdose on junk meats, such as hot dogs and fast-food burgers. Yet, don't expect your child to go meatless all his life. Give your children a vegetarian start and, as they grow away from your nest, let them decide what eating pattern they will follow. They may find reasons, such as concern for cruelty to animals, that keep them on the veggie tract. Model your excitement about eating a wide variety of plant-based foods, serve them tastefully, and the rest is up to your child.

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