A vegetarian diet has the potential to be extremely healthy for anyone, including children. Vegetarians tend to consume a much higher amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals from a variety of sources. They also have lower cholesterol levels, and less likeliness of developing chronic illnesses such as obesity, atherosclerosis, asthma, and diabetes. Plant based foods are a more efficient energy source than animal products as they are easier for the body to break-down. A vegetarian diet for children is a great way to emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and alternative protein sources at a young age.
Children need high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and essential fatty acids for proper growth and development. This means they need to eat several servings of nutrient-rich foods every day – whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. According to the National Center for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, only 39% of children meet the daily requirement for fiber, and few eat enough fruits and vegetables. Vegetarian kids are more likely to form habits of eating enough fresh, natural foods because they are introduced to healthy meat alternatives, such as soy, legumes, and grains.
Animal products do provide some nutrients and plenty of protein, but they are also rife with saturated fat and cholesterol. This unhealthy fat clogs arteries, which leads to high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. A vegetarian diet is a far more beneficial diet for the heart because it is rich in unsaturated fat sources, such as nutritional oils, nuts, beans, and whole grains which lower cholesterol rather than raising it. These foods provide essential fatty acids, which children need for proper brain development, healthy skin and joints.
Alternative Sources of Nutrition
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains is always a wise choice, but what about essential nutrients that children need, that can only be found from animal sources? Children, unlike adults are still growing; the early years are a critical period in every child’s development. They must have enough protein, healthy fat, and essential vitamins and minerals.
Red meat, chicken, seafood, and dairy products are all excellent sources of protein, which is necessary for the development and repair of muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails, and most organs. Protein deficiencies lead to growth abnormalities, poor mental development, and fatigue. Fortunately, it is easy for a child to get enough protein in their diet, even without meat sources.
Protein is made up of amino acids. A complete protein is a combination of the nine essential amino acids. Vegetarian sources of complete proteins include soy, amaranth, hemp seed, quinoa, legumes, nutritional yeast, sprouts, and sea greens such as spirulina and chlorella. Whole grains, dark green vegetables, and the cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts) all contain small amounts of easily absorbable protein, as well as essential fatty acids.
Iron, zinc and calcium are three minerals that are easily found in animal products, and are highly important to a child’s health. They are as well found in the plant kingdom. Iron is necessary for the transfer of oxygen through the bloodstream to all major organs of the body. Iron supplements are often difficult to absorb; it is much better to find this mineral in whole foods. Green vegetables, such as asparagus and spinach are excellent sources, as are beans, soy, whole grains and nuts. Dried fruits such as prunes and raisins provide iron, and are rich in antioxidants and fiber.
Zinc, which contributes to growth and immunity can as well be found in a variety of sources – primarily whole grains, wheat germ, lima beans, soy, and nuts. Calcium, which children need for bone and teeth health, can be found in root vegetables, broccoli, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, and sea greens.
There are as well a handful of essential vitamins which are found primarily in animal sources. The B-complex vitamins (riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin) help muscle tissue utilize the energy from food. They are found in high quantities in sea greens and whole grains. Vitamin B-12 is needed for the growth and repair of body cells. Aside from red meat, this vitamin can only be found in sea greens, nutritional yeast, soy, and fortified cereals. If your child is not eating these foods, they should take a vitamin B-12 supplement. Vitamin D, which is found in fortified milk, eggs, and fish is necessary for bone formation and calcium absorption. Vitamin D deficiency is actually common in children and is responsible for poorly formed and weak bones. Sunlight is the number one source of vitamin D; about fifteen minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week is enough. Food sources include fortified soy milk and fortified cereals.
Please continue on to page two of this article to learn about natural supplements that can help ensure your vegetarian child is getting all the nutrients they need.
Natural Supplements for Vegetarian Children
Herbal sources of iron, calcium, and zinc, as well as a broad range of vitamins, such as vitamins A, C, and K, include dandelion, alfalfa, and nettles. If you have any doubt that a vegetarian diet for children is lacking in nutrition, supplementing with herbs is an ideal way to ensure optimum nutrition. Many children won’t enjoy the bitter taste of these herbal teas, but in tincture form they can be diluted in fruit juice.
Some sea greens, known as super greens, also provide the necessary spectrum of nutrition that a vegetarian child may be missing. Chlorella, a single-celled water grown algae is high in protein, carbohydrates, all the B vitamins, vitamins C, E, amino acids, and rare trace minerals. Chlorella has more vitamin B-12 than most meat sources. It can be found in capsule or tincture form in any health food store.
Many vegetarians use nutritional yeast to supplement their diet. Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast that can be added to foods, adding a cheese-like flavor, and a full dose of nutrition. Rich with all of the B vitamins and protein, it can be sprinkled into sauces, sautes, and soups. Nutritional yeast is also sold at health food stores.
Teaching your child how to be health conscious, provides them the tools they need to make beneficial decisions as adults. Ultimately, healthy eating for vegetarian kids is possible as long as all nutritional needs are met. It does require extra effort, possibly supplementation, and creative cooking, but kids who don’t eat meat are healthy too!
Page, Linda. Healthy Healing: A Guide to Self-Healing for Everyone. 11th Edition (Traditional Wisdom, 2003).
The Vegetarian Resource Group <https://www.vrg.org/>
photo by: Mckaysavage (CC/flickr) <https://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/2085739779/>