A vegetarian diet for children, of whatever type, as long as it is well planned and supplemented with vitamin B12, can be as adequate a diet as a balanced omnivorous diet.
When a family explains that all of them are vegetarians, including children, they usually run into endless problems and, sometimes, reproaches and even a certain contempt on the part of the environment. And it is still believed that it is a diet detrimental to their growth and that it can cause health problems.
Is the vegetarian diet suitable for children?
But a vegetarian diet, of whatever type (lacto-ovo-vegetarian, vegan …) provided it is well planned and supplemented with vitamin B12, with the supervision of a nutritionist , can be as adequate a diet as an omnivorous diet balanced. This is stated by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AAND) which, in 2016, indicated that “ vegetarian diets (lacto-ovo-vegetarian and vegan diets) are healthy, they help prevent and treat chronic diseases in a non-pharmacological way. common, and they are also sustainable with the environment.
These diets are suitable not only for all stages of the life cycle (pregnancy, lactation, pediatric age, etc.) but are also effective in reducing the risks of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity and some types of cancer ”. For its part, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) comments that “vegetarian individuals from birth have a similar height, weight and BMI as adults to those who became vegetarians later in life, which suggests that, during infancy and childhood, well-planned vegetarian diets do not affect the final height or weight of the adult ”.
Nutrients of the vegetarian diet
Most children on an omnivorous diet consume excess protein. On the other hand, this is not the case in vegetarian children , who reach adequate protein amounts if they follow a varied vegetarian diet. There is a tendency to believe that they will not get enough protein when in our society it is not a problem at all, on the contrary.
It should be taken into account that legumes lack a type of amino acid (methionine) that we can get from cereals and, on the contrary, legumes have much less amount of lysine and threonine, which we can obtain from cereals, so that a complete protein is achieved by combining both foods, either at the same meal or throughout the day. A tip: letting them germinate, soak or cook them improves their absorption.
There are two types of iron: the iron contained in foods of animal origin (meat, liver, blue fish ) called heme iron, which is better absorbed than the non-heme iron provided by vegetables (whole grains, legumes, greens and vegetables ), although some foods of animal origin such as milk and eggs also have it , whose absorption is lower depending on the rest of the diet and on individual absorption factors.
But studies show us that the amount of absorbable non-heme iron is adapted to the individual needs of each moment. People with lower iron stores tend to absorb more iron from the intestines and excrete less.
It is also advised to take measures that improve its absorption, such as combining foods rich in non-heme iron with foods rich in vitamin C, such as orange, mandarin, kiwi, strawberry …
Even so, it will be one of the values to take into account and that should be checked periodically.
Dairy products are not essential in the diet, as long as a balanced and healthy diet is followed where calcium values are achieved, through other foods. There are plant-based foods that are a good source of calcium. In addition to the food itself, we must take into account its bioavailability, that is, the ease of absorption. Plant foods rich in calcium, such as some vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, collard greens …), some legumes (soybeans, white and black beans) or nuts (especially almonds) are rich in phytates, which reduce the absorption of calcium, so even having large amounts of this mineral, its absorption may be low.
To prevent this from happening , preparation or cooking techniques must be followed that deactivate phytic acid and thus improve its bioavailability. A long cooking of cereals or soaking of several hours of legumes favor their deactivation. In the case of obtaining calcium from seeds, such as sesame, they should not be taken whole but crushed in a mortar or with a coffee grinder to be able to adequately absorb the calcium inside. The consumption of vegetables rich in calcium should be separated from other foods rich in oxalates (wheat germ, nuts …).
It should be noted that if the vitamin D values are not adequate, the absorption of calcium will not be correct.
According to the Spanish Society for Bone Research and Mineral Metabolism (SEIOMM), 30% of young Spaniards do not reach optimal levels of vitamin D , so it is very important to have sun exposure of at least 15 minutes a day, since the vitamin D is activated like this. It may be necessary to supplement, since most foods rich in vitamin D are of animal origin.
To achieve a complete and balanced diet we must promote the variety of foods: vegetables, greens, fruits, cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil …
- and avoid superfluous foods such as pastries, cookies, juices, sweets … It is also advisable to take iodized salt, try to have protein in all meals, and always supplement vitamin B12.
As for the rest of vitamins and minerals, it will be necessary or not to supplement them, studying the case individually, so we advise you to visit a specialized nutritionist.
What you should know…
- Most children on an omnivorous diet consume excess protein. On the contrary, this is not the case in vegetarian children, who achieve adequate protein amounts with a varied vegetarian diet .
- To improve iron absorption, we must ensure that they combine foods rich in non-heme iron with foods rich in vitamin C, such as orange, tangerine, kiwi, strawberry …
- Dairy products are not essential in the diet, as long as a balanced and healthy diet is followed where the calcium values are achieved, through other foods.