You are both vegetarians or vegans, and you do not know how to understand the nutritional education of your child ?
Does your child refuse to consume animal products?
Are you afraid that your child will miss something or that he will develop certain disorders if he adopts a vegetable diet?
These questions are all perfectly legitimate.
When we start to discuss food with loved ones, everyone goes there with their little comment, according to their beliefs or what the person heard.
Who to believe?
Omnivores who think that a vegetarian diet is not at all suitable for a young child? Or are vegetarians convinced that animal products are not necessary for children’s development?
Not consuming meat myself, I needed scientific evidence to answer these questions from a neutral point of view. So I read articles advocating a vegetable diet, but also those written by people convinced that this type of diet is dangerous and doomed to failure. So I immersed myself in study reports, and I decided to share with you the fruit of my research in this article.
I hope that this will help you to see more clearly, and perhaps you will find there valid arguments to use at the next family meal!
Parents vegetarians, should the child be given the choice?
As you know, I don’t eat meat myself , but eggs, some dairy products and certain seafood products are always present in my diet. If I advocate a predominantly vegetable diet, I cannot see animal products as prohibited. They are so rich in nutrition that if your child wants to eat them, I don’t think we have the right to refuse. You have made that choice, you are free, but I think it is up to the child.
You can explain things to him, but have a neutral speech . No one can tell you how to educate your child, but listen to the advice given to you. It may be difficult, if not impossible, for you to cook animal products, but I am sure that some of your loved ones are omnivores. Take advantage of these opportunities, or the school canteen, to give your child the opportunity to choose what he wants.
Keep in mind that feeding the child is of great importance and will dictate their health.
If in case you eat mostly “poor quality” meat, then I think a vegetarian diet is more “healthy”. However, quality meat, consumed in a rational way, is a concentrate of minerals, proteins and other trace elements beneficial to growth.
Let us now come to the main question: is the vegetable diet suitable for children?
What do the studies say?
New generations are more inclined to adopt a vegetarian diet. Also, the question of the diet without meat products given to children begins to arise. Studies are few, and lobbies will do everything to influence research.
Regarding the vegan diet, studies are more divided. You have surely already heard of children who died due to their vegan diet, or, to a lesser extent, with deficiencies, as described in this study . However, I think that if the media would be interested in the number of deaths due to a diet rich in fast food, the number of deaths would be much higher!
Here are the details of the study results:
NB: this part can be complex for some. Links to other articles are there to help you clarify some concepts. I advise you to read this part, but a summary at the end of the article will quote the main lines.
According to studies and several associations ( Canada’s Food Guide , American Dietetic Association and Dieteticians of Canada and American Academy of Pediatric), a balanced vegetarian diet provides everything that children and adolescents need.
However, there are some things to watch out for :
– Protein intake
– Essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3 (knowing that the omnivorous diet often also has an omega-3 deficiency)
– Vitamin B12
– Vitamin D
– General calorie intake
The supplementation is sometimes necessary , especially if the child follows a vegan diet.
Let’s see in more detail each of the elements mentioned above
Proteins & essential amino acids
A variety of foods of non-animal origin can provide essential amino acids . However, vegetable proteins being less digestible, some studies suggest that protein intakes should be increased by 30 to 35% for children under 2 years old, 20 to 30% for 2-6 years old and 15 to 20% for children over 6 years old.
Minerals: iron, zinc & calcium
Several comparative studies indicate that there is no evidence of anemia in children who eat a plant-based diet. However, vegans and lacto-ovo-vegetarians have iron requirements increased by 1.8 due to the low bioavailability. Vitamin C present in plants promotes the assimilation of non-heme iron, when fibers, phytates and tannins inhibit its absorption. A balance must therefore be struck. Iron deficiency being the most widespread nutritional deficiency in children, it is essential that parents identify foods rich in iron . Additionally, supplementation during the rapid growth phases may be essential.
The phytates present in large quantities in the vegetarian diet bind to zinc reducing its bioavailability. 50% of zinc intake comes from animal proteins in the traditional omnivorous diet. However, zinc deficiency is rare, and supplementation is not recommended. It is advisable to include in your diet foods rich in zinc (legumes, oilseeds , sourdough bread and fermented soy products). Certain preparation techniques, such as germination, increase the bioavailability of zinc and other trace elements and vitamins.
Children on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, including dairy products are not at risk. On the other hand, the calcium intakes of strict vegans are to be monitored because studies show a deficit in these children .
Also, in order to ensure sufficient calcium intake, foods supplemented with calcium (cereals, juice) would be recommended. Green vegetables low in oxalates such as Chinese cabbage or kale, have a bioavailable calcium, so to promote.
Fatty acids and lipids
Vegan children tend to consume less fat than omnivorous or lacto-ovo-vegetarian children, but the impact on their growth seems negligible. However, the vegan diet appears to be deficient in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA . The main sources being fish, seafood and eggs, unless consuming large amounts of algae, vegans have no source.
In parallel, the high intake of omega-6 inhibits the conversion of the precursor of linolenic acid to DHA and EPA. Very young people with a limited ability to convert alpha linoleic acid will likely need professional supervised DHA supplementation .
Plant sources of alpha linoleic acid ( flaxseed, nuts, hemp, etc.) should be included, and trans fatty acids should be limited (they limit the synthesis of omega-3).
Omega-3s should provide 1% of the total caloric intake of vegetarians (Canadian recommendation).
Vegans are at risk for deficiencies . B12 supplementation of around 5µg per day is essential. The nutritional yeast is a source, but is not sufficient. Vegetarians can get their needs from dairy products or eggs. High intakes of folic acid can mask a B12 deficiency.
The liver, fatty fish and egg yolk are the three major food sources of vitamin D. Exposure to the sun also contributes to the synthesis of this vitamin. Vegan children require D2 (ergocalciferol) supplementation .
Vitamin A in active form is only present in animal products. Vegans must therefore convert the carotenoids present in large quantities in green, orange and yellow vegetables and the beta carotene contained in certain fruits into vitamin A. 3 servings per day of foods of this type are recommended.
Although riboflavin intakes appear to be lower than in non-vegetarians, no impairment has been observed clinically.
The maximum fiber intake recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics is 0.5g / kg / d. Vegan children would have intakes three times higher than these recommendations. This can be problematic because the fibers interfere with the absorption of minerals and are generally present in low energy products.
The vegan diet
While the risk of deficiencies is low in young vegetarians whose diet is varied, the vegan child is more at risk. The supply of nutritious and caloric food will be essential for its growth . Also, oilseeds and oilseed mash, legumes, grains, seeds and soy products (be careful, not just anyhow and in controlled quantities!) Will meet your needs. These products should be present because they have different amino acid compositions. On the other hand, the food combination (combining cereals-legumes to have all the amino acids) will not be essential at each meal, because children’s food is more divided.
The precautions to take with regard to the vegetarian diet for children, are similar to that in adulthood. In vegans, calcium will be a mineral to watch as well as protein, linoleic acid and fiber. If the nursing mother is vegan, the child should consume zinc fortified foods after the age of 7 months, and her intakes will be increased by 50%. Vitamin B12 supplementation is essential.
Iron supplementation may be necessary, but this can also be seen in omnivores. 90% of French people would have a vitamin D deficit in winter, supplementation seems inevitable.
To have knowledge in nutrition is essential if you decide to feed your child (or that he decides alone) with products exclusively of vegetable origins, in order to ensure optimal growth and good development.
I would also like to address the question of the relationship between TCA (Eating Behavior Disorders) and vegetarian diet.
Vegetable diet & eating disorders
Although the vegetarian diet brings many benefits, it could facilitate in young people (especially young girls), the appearance of eating disorders. Indeed, like any restrictive diet, the “ I can eat ” and “ I cannot eat ” facilitate the restrictions . However, the vegetarian diet also appears to be a step in healing TCA. Few studies have studied the subject, but this remains to be taken into account by parents.
If you need advice regarding your child’s diet or vegetarian diets, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Resources for parents and healthcare professionals: