Vegetarian Diet for Children

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Vegetarian-Diet_cBy school-age, a child's eating patterns and taste preferences will have been established by the family eating habits. Children are now able to exercise some choice over what they eat and may decide on their own initiative that they don't want to eat meat. They may also be heavily influenced by their peer groups.


Many of the processes that lead to modern adult nutritional diseases, such as heart disease, begin in childhood. Adult healthy eating advice to reduce fat and have enough fiber does apply to school age children. Reports on the diets of British school children show that they tend to eat far too much fat and sugar and not enough dietary fiber, iron and calcium. Vegetarian children often start with an advantage as their diet is usually lower in fat and higher in fiber.

Numerous studies on the growth of vegetarian children show that they grow just as well and in some cases better than their meat-eating counterparts. In later life vegetarians suffer less of the modern nutritional diseases particularly heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure, so you can rest assured that you are giving them the best start in life.

Growing children still need plenty of energy and nutrient dense foods. As they have small stomachs and large energy needs, their meals need to be more frequent and regular than an adult's. The school years before adolescence represent a time of gradual, steady growth and nutritional risks are lower at this time than during the pre-school years and later during the adolescent growth spurt.

Children need to be encouraged to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables which provide a rich source of essential vitamins and minerals. Sometimes they prefer raw vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli. It is better not to force a child to eat what they don't like or food can become a battle ground.

Fried, fatty and sugary foods, such as pies, chips, sweets and chocolate often provide a lot of calories but with few associated nutrients, hence they are often called "junk foods". If your child is eating a varied diet with foods taken from each of the vegetarian food groups, and very little junk food, then it is likely that the nutrient content of the diet will take care of itself, provided they are getting enough energy.

Important Nutrients

Protein

Protein is an important nutrient for growth, although it is not difficult for children to get enough provided a varied diet of sufficient food is eaten. The only foods that are notably low in protein are sugar, fruit, fats and oils.

Milk, cheese, free-range eggs, yogurt, soy milk, tofu, beans, cereals/grains, nuts and seeds are all good sources of protein. Proteins must be balanced in order to get the right mixture of amino acids. Normal combinations of foods such as a cereal with beans or lentils, cereal with nuts, seeds or milk provide the right balance of protein.

Energy Foods

Very young children do not have the capacity to eat large quantities of food and so they need small and frequent meals. Their diet should not contain too many foods that are bulky or watery. Make sure your child has some concentrated energy foods like lentils with vegetable oil, avocado, cheese or smooth nut butter. High carbohydrate foods are good sources of energy such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. Sugar is not a good source of energy as it lacks essential vitamins and minerals and causes dental decay.

Iron

Iron is an important nutrient for growing children and is essential for healthy blood. There are plenty of good sources of iron, although iron from non-animal sources is less easily absorbed. Milk and other dairy products are very poor sources of iron.

Iron-rich foods suitable for children include: dried fruit, (such as apricots), molasses, beans, lentils, egg yolks, whole grain cereals and green vegetables. Avoid cereals that are very high in fiber as these may inhibit iron absorption.

Vitamin C aids absorption of iron from plant foods and so it helps to give sources of both these nutrients together. Vitamin C is found in frozen, fresh or juiced fruit and vegetables.

Calcium

Calcium is an important nutrient for young children particularly for healthy teeth and bones. Good sources of calcium include cow's milk, yogurt, fortified soy milk, cheese, green vegetables, wholemeal bread, beans, lentils, ground almonds, sesame paste and tofu.

Zinc

Zinc is essential for growth and cell division. Zinc absorption can be inhibited by too much phytic acid, found in whole grain cereals and other fibrous foods. Vegetarian sources of this vital mineral include cheese, nuts and seeds (particularly pumpkin seeds) and tofu.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms and is found mostly in animal foods. Vegetarian children can usually obtain enough of this vitamin from dairy products and eggs. Vegan children and those who consume few dairy products will need vitamin B12 from fortified foods such as some soya milks, low salt yeast extract or breakfast cereals.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium. It is found in dairy products, eggs and fortified foods like margarine and some breakfast cereals, and can be made by the action of sunlight on the skin. It is found exclusively in animal foods so veggie children may need a vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months.

Fiber

A diet too high in fiber will fill up a small child before their nutritional needs have been met and can interfere with absorption of minerals, such as zinc, iron and calcium. Whole grain bread is fine but avoid cereals that are very high in fiber. Bran should not be added to a young child's diet.


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