Written by ASIAMED & APOLLO HOSPITALS
Vegetarians are people who don’t eat meat and meat products. People may be vegetarians or vegans for ethical, environmental, health or cultural reasons. If parents are vegetarians, they may want their children to eat the same way that they do. For most healthy children, a vegetarian diet can provide a nutritious alternative to a diet that includes meat. However, special care needs to be taken with children on all vegetarian diets, especially vegan diets.
Types of vegetarians
Vegetarians can be classified into the following groups:
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians – They consume dairy products and eggs.
• Lacto-vegetarians – They do not eat eggs but consume dairy products.
• Vegans –They do not consume dairy products and eggs.
The type of vegetarian diet most commonly associated with nutritional problems in children is the vegan diet. Strict vegan diets are generally not recommended for very young children.
Vegetarian mothers and breastfeeding
If your diet is healthy, breast milk alone will be enough until your baby is around six months. Make sure you eat plenty of the following foods because they contain important vitamins and minerals:
• Protein foods such as nuts, eggs, dried beans and lentils and tofu
• Dairy products such as cows milk, cheese and yoghurt or soy products fortified with calcium
• Cereal and grain foods, including fortified or wholegrain cereals and grains
• A variety of fruit and vegetables, including green leafy vegetables
• Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils.
A severe lack of vitamin B12 in breast milk can cause brain damage to your baby. It can also cause anaemia in the mother. Vitamin B12 deficiency could occur if your diet has excluded all foods of an animal origin over a number of years. Vitamin B12 is found mainly in animal products, milk and eggs. If you are a vegan and are breastfeeding, you may need vitamin or mineral supplements. Talk to your doctor or dietitian.
To make sure your child gets enough of all the nutrients needed for a growing child, their vegetarian diet must include:
• Protein alternatives such as nuts, eggs, legumes and tofu
• Energy for growth and development
• Iron to prevent anaemia
• Vitamin B12
• Vitamin D and calcium to prevent bone disease
• Suitable fats from non-meat sources
• Food in the correct form and combination to make sure nutrients can be digested and absorbed.
Recommended sources of protein
Meat provides an easily absorbed, concentrated source of protein but other foods can also provide a good source of protein. These include dairy products, eggs, grains, legumes, pulses and various soy foods (such as tofu, tempeh and seitan). It is possible to consume enough protein for proper growth and development by following a vegan or vegetarian style of eating.
Children’s high-energy needs
Young children have high-energy needs and a small stomach. You should include a mixture of refined and unrefined (wholegrain) cereals and a variety of energy-giving foods in your child’s diet. These can be found in the following foods:
• Cereals – all types of cereal are suitable for vegetarian diets.
• Dairy products – full fat dairy products are the most common choice. An alternative is soymilk with added calcium. Some soymilks also have added vitamin B12.
• Fruit and vegetables – include a wide variety of fruit and vegetables every day. As a guide, aim for two small serves of fruit and three small serves of vegetables.
• Oils – include soy and canola oils because they contain linolenic acid, which is important for brain and nervous tissue function. Oils also provide energy.
Vegetarian diets for very young children
Suggestions for a vegetarian diet for baby and young child include:
• Milk – continue breastfeeding or using fortified infant formula until at least 12 months.
• Solids – don’t delay the introduction of solids.
• Grains, fruit and vegetables – include baby rice cereal, fruits and vegetables (consider continuing with iron-fortified rice cereal for longer) as first solids.
• Offer a variety of solids – after six months begin with pureed fruit and vegetables. You can later add soft cooked beans, lentils and pulses, tofu, pasteurised yoghurt, cheese, egg, avocado, smooth peanut and other nut pastes or sesame seed paste (tahini).