When I was growing up, until about the beginning of high school, my mother decided to raise my three siblings and I vegetarian. The story goes that my older sister refused to eat her meat, so my parents said, “Screw it!” and instead of trying to force it, just stopped serving us meat altogether. I have distinct memories of handing out pamphlets in the middle school cafeteria at Thanksgiving declaring that turkeys should be free, not food. (In case you couldn’t tell, I was not one of the popular kids.) Eventually, my siblings and I began eating good old dead animals — some of us more gung-ho than others — but my mother still claims our vegetarian upbringing is the reason my brothers and sister are all 6 or more feet tall.
When I got pregnant two and a half years ago, it never occurred to me to raise my own children vegetarian. It seemed like something our hippie mother had chosen for us, and which we had been too naive to question. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: Had my mother made the right choice? A vegetarian lifestyle certainly seems healthier for the planet, but is it really healthier for growing kids? I wanted to give my child the best — but was cutting out animal products really the answer? How far should I go to ensure he gets all the health benefits? Cut out milk, butter, and eggs too? No more *sob* cheese??
SheKnows spoke with registered dietitian-nutritionist Whitney English about this quandary and discussed whether there is any huge benefit to children being raised vegetarian — or even vegan. English is the cocreator of Plant-Based Juniors, a platform for parents who are what English calls “interested in raising their children plant-based in whatever capacity works best for their family, and to ensure they’re doing it right.”
According to English, there is a plethora of benefits that a plant-based diet offers children. “Studies show that vegan and vegetarian children tend to have higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, lower intakes of fat and cholesterol and are leaner — have lower [body mass indexes],” English says.
Well, eating a lot of fruits and veggies certainly sounds like a positive outcome. But is it really that big a deal? English says yes. “Low fruit and vegetable intake is a major problem in America, with 93 percent of children falling short of vegetable intake recommendations,” she explains.
Many parents who consider vegetarian or vegan diets for their children are concerned their kids might not get the proper amounts of protein, calcium and other nutrients on a plant-based diet, but English insists that “plant-based diets have been shown to be safe and nutritious through all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy and childhood.”
But a vegetarian lifestyle isn’t for everyone, English adds, and it definitely requires a little more time and effort than the average American diet. “Vegan and vegetarian diets may not be ideal for children with allergies to soy, wheat, eggs or dairy, who may find their food options too limited on a plant-based diet. Additionally, if parents don’t have the knowledge, time or resources to ensure their children are consuming a varied plant-based diet, it may not be the best for their family,” English shares.
If you’re thinking, “But… bacon.” Good news! It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t have to give up all the foods you love. “A 100 percent plant-based diet isn’t necessary to reap the benefits. All forms of plant-based eating provide benefits over a typical American diet,” English advises.
But clinical dietitian-nutritionist Ilisa Nussbaum warns it can be tricky to raise a child as a vegetarian — and it takes considerable planning and attention. “Often, there is a misconception that vegetarian automatically equals healthy, and that’s simply not accurate. If a child’s vegetarian diet is filled with processed convenience foods such as veggie hot dogs or veggie chips, they will be missing out on important nutrients for growth and development. This is particularly an issue for vegetarian diets that do not include dairy or eggs,” Nussbaum tells SheKnows.
You also have to make sure your kids get enough caloric intake. Nussbaum notes, “The biggest complication I encounter when treating vegetarian kids is suboptimal growth as a result of inadequate caloric intake. Often, well-intentioned parents will give kids healthy vegetarian foods that are high in fiber. These foods are filling and can result in the child not eating enough calories. I counsel these families to increase calorically dense foods, particularly ones that are a mixture of fat and protein, such as nut butters, avocado, hummus, etc.”
Nussbaum also warns that teens do have different vitamin and mineral intake requirements. “Iron intake can also be an issue, particularly for girls who are menstruating. Dark, leafy greens eaten with a source of vitamin C will increase iron absorption. Additionally, using a cast-iron pan for cooking will increase iron intake.”
Pediatrician Dr. Henry Rosenberg agrees. He tells SheKnows, “Kids can certainly be well-nourished and grow up strong and healthy on a vegetarian diet. Doing the same thing on a vegan diet is challenging. It can be done, but requires continual focus. Kids can also grow up strong and healthy eating hogs and steers, though they may be set up for future vascular disease.”
So what’s best? Vegetarian or not? A plant-based diet has numerous benefits for children and adults alike, but it’s not without its drawbacks. Ask your pediatrician if you have any questions, and choose what lifestyle and diet works for you and your family, and if that’s mostly plant-based… plus some bacon… so be it.