Can we raise healthy kids on a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet?
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
Switching to plant-based diet is a hot topic of conversation right now and as a Child Nutritionist, I often get asked my professional opinion about kids becoming vegetarian or vegan. As a mother, it’s hard to divorce myself from the answer I give, so I write this blog from the vantage point of feeding a toddler (well, 3yr old) several times a day as well as from a place of knowledge having personally studied Vegan & Vegetarian Nutrition.
Firstly, it is possible for any human being, regardless of gender or age, to have all their nutritional needs met by an entirely plant-based diet. However, what must NOT be underestimated is the planning and preparation that goes into successfully meeting these needs: variety is key with plant-based diets and ensuring the right balance of nutrients is no easy task. If you are extremely wealthy and can afford your own personal chef and / or nutritionist, then you are probably not going to struggle……however, us mere mortals with busy lives juggling jobs and families, may find it more challenging. Add picky eating and fads into the meal-time equation and after a hectic day we can quickly see how nutritional deficiencies arise more frequently in children following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
I think it is also important to ask yourself the question, why do I want my child or children to follow a plant-based diet? Having studied Ethical & Sustainable Eating, I am acutely aware of the impact our food choices have on the state of the planet. For myself, I chose not to eat red meat at all. I have no nutritional need to do so. I do, however, still buy beef for my son, only I do it with best environmental practice in mind. Children need certain vitamins for healthy growth & development and the reality is that often the best sources of these come from animals. Vitamin B12, for example, is critical for brain development and cognitive function as well as being a great natural source of energy for kids, however, primary dietary sources are all animal based foods. I have chosen therefore to continue to feed my son beef once a week, for its many vitamin and mineral benefits i.e. B12, B6, Iron, Zinc & phosphorous to name a few. I apply the same principles to the fatty fish I buy which helps ensure we all get a good dose of brain boosting Omega 3’s and from well sourced WILD varieties devoid of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics.
In short, I follow these 2 simple rules:
1) BUY WELL SOURCED: grass fed meat & organic meat or wild, sustainably caught seafood
2) USE LESS OF IT: mix beef with lentils which still makes the best bolognese or cottage pie / mix a wild caught salmon fillet with veggies & edamame beans.
*This also helps to negate the issue of cost where organic and wild caught is concerned
If, like me, you aren’t ready for the kids to go fully vegetarian but you are mindful of the impact your choices for them are having on the wider health of the planet, follow the 2 simple rules above which can be applied to almost any animal product or bi-product: so if you want to drink cow’s milk, buy grass fed organic (add water to make it last longer)! If you are going to eat eggs, buy organic or at the very least free range! When you decide to cook a roast chicken, know the source of that chicken and make use of the entire bird! When you are cooking with meat, buy better quality and use less of it! Talk to your local butchers & fishmongers, research what’s available from local sources and get to know what different certifications mean - for they are not all created equal.
Where older adolescents are concerned, you may find it is their choice to switch to a plant-based diet. Acknowledging and respecting their choices is key, however, as a parent it is also our role to provide them with adequate nutrition for healthy growth and development. Do your research, consult a nutritionist and know the potential pitfalls so you can navigate these. Providing plenty of easily accessible and nutritious snacks is important: nuts, seeds, dried fruits, plant-based milks, fresh fruit and wholegrain crackers will all help prevent hungry teenagers from reaching for salty or sugary treats with no nutritional value. Being mindful of fibre content is also key and ensuring plant proteins are plentiful on the plate.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge here that if you are Vegan and hold true to a strong set of core beliefs surrounding Veganism, then consumption of animal products is not going to stand up in any measure. In this case, I would suggest scheduling regular medical checks for your kids, including blood tests, so that potential deficiencies can be addressed quickly and efficiently – with dietary adjustments and suitable supplements. I also advocate consulting with a nutritionist and having a clear & balanced meal plan to follow so all nutritional needs are addressed ahead of time.
Whilst ethical eating is a series topic, let’s not lose sight of the fact that food should and can be a lot of be fun, as well as being nourishing for the body & soul. Preparing healthy snacks & meals for kids and getting them involved is all part of the learning process. Talking to children in an age appropriate manner whilst they squish bananas for pancakes or chop carrots for their bolognese will go a long way to instilling positive messages around eating with awareness and understanding the origins of our food - whether you or they, chose to follow a plant-based diet or otherwise.