There are many benefits to choosing a vegetarian diet, and evidence shows that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters. They have a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease and cancer, due to the fact that they tend to eat fewer calories, more fibre, less saturated fat and less processed foods.
There are however a number of things to bear in mind if you choose to be vegetarian:
Nine of the twenty amino acids that you need to synthesise protein in the body, are essential – that is they cannot be produced by the body and need to be obtained from the diet. A further three (cysteine, tyrosine and arginine) are considered essential for infants and children.
Of the vegetable proteins, only spirulina, quinoa, soy, buckwheat, amaranth and hempseed are complete, that is they contain all of the nine essential amino acids, whereas all animal derived protein sources (meat, fish, eggs, dairy products) are complete.
Having said this, all essential amino acids can be obtained from one meal by combining different vegetable proteins in one meal, e.g. rice and beans. Good sources of vegetable protein: soya, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, quinoa, spirulina.
Children need to have a higher percentage of protein in their diets than adults as they are growing, so it is important that they are receiving a wide variety of different proteins every day.
In order to maintain good health, adequate energy and balanced blood sugar levels it is essential that every meal and snack throughout the day contain protein, with the main meals of the day delivering all nine essential amino acids, either by combining proteins, including one of the complete vegetable proteins or via fish, eggs or dairy.
Great ideas for snacks: sesame seed bars, nut bars, nut butter on toast (peanut, cashew, hazelnut and almond butters are available from health food shops), hoummous and crudités, yoghurts, baked beans on toast, cottage cheese on crackers; choose seeded breads
Great ideas for meal times: vegetable chilli with a variety of beans and vegetables, served with rice or tortillas; lentil curry; add a tin of beans to vegetable soup; bean salads; vegetable stir fry with cashew nuts and tofu.
Ideas for baking: use almond flour to bake cakes as this has a high protein content; add chopped nuts to cookies or muffins; peanut butter crunchies; homemade flapjacks packed with nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Without care a vegetarian diet could be deficient in iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and D
This nutrient is vital for energy production, and it helps distribute oxygen around the body. The most easily absorbable form of iron is heme iron, which is only found in red meat. There are however plenty of sources of non heme iron: eggs, chickpeas, beans, peas, chard, spinach, dried apricots, tomato paste, curry powder, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, tofu, parsley, broccoli, asparagus, basil. Vegetable sources of iron often include other nutrients such as vitamin C which aid its absorption.
Zinc is essential for growth, and therefore very important in a child’s diet. It is also very important for a strong immune system and for balancing blood sugar levels. All forms of protein are a good source of zinc (cheese, yoghurt, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds) as are mushrooms, spinach, peas and brown rice.
Vitamin B12 is required for normal cell division; blood function and formation; structure and function of nerves; and together with folic acid and vitamin B6, for the maintenance of normal homocysteine levels. It is only found in foods of animal origin, so will be available for a vegetarian child in oily fish, eggs and dairy foods. Fermented foods are particularly high, so yoghurt would be a good source. It is often found in fortified foods such as margarine, breakfast cereals, bread, soya based products and meat substitutes. Vitamin B12 is also found in micro organisms and mould; insects and insect remains consumed in vegetables and fruit; fermented foods or yeast extracts; faecal contamination of foods. Supplementation of B12 would also be advisable if the fortified and indirect sources were not a daily feature of the diet.
Vitamin D is involved in cell formation; in controlling calcium absorption in the intestine; in the absorption of phosphorus; and for normal bone mineralization and structure. Deficiency causes rickets in children and osteomalacia and osteoporosis in adults. Vitamin D is produced endogenously by the body when skin is exposed to sunlight. Those children who have little exposure to the sun, or who have dark skin (melanin inhibits absorption of Vitamin D) would be advised to supplement Vitamin D. Food sources of vitamin D are oily fish, egg yolks, soya products, shiitake mushrooms and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.
If your child is eats dairy products then they are probably getting sufficient intake of the calcium and zinc. But do remember that dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds also provide good levels of these minerals.
Fats – the good and the bad
There can be a temptation with vegetarian children to rely on cheese as the main source of protein. Cheese is high in saturated fat and could lead to problems later in life. Also be informed when choosing processed vegetarian foods as these are likely to contain high levels of trans and hydrogenated fats which are even more damaging than saturated fats. Always read the labels on processed foods. Good sources of fat are found in avocados, nuts, seeds, cold pressed vegetable oils and oily fish.
I feel that it is very hard for anyone, whether vegetarian or not, to get an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals from their diet, for a variety of reasons: overfarming in particular the quality of the soil in which foods are grown; storage of food for extended periods of time by supermarkets; pesticides, pollutants, additives etc. etc. I would therefore recommend that children take a multivitamin and mineral to make up for potential shortfalls in their diet.
If you are interested in an individualised programme to improve your child’s diet or would like help with other health issues, please call Emily Fawell DipION, Nutritional Therapist on 07967 639347 or contact me via email Emily@4wellpeople.co.uk