If you are choosing to raise your child as a vegetarian or vegan, you are destined to be questioned. Most people don’t know enough about nutrition to be able to challenge the status quo of a meat-based diet.
Lacto-ovo vegetarianism is a diet that includes dairy products and eggs but excludes fish, seafood and any kind of meat. Veganism additionally excludes any products that are derived from animals, such as milk, eggs and honey.
Here are some important statistics to have in your arsenal when you are challenged:
- Westerners eat 2 to 2.5 times more meat per person than the average global citizen (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
- Several of the top meat-consuming countries are also among the top 20 in terms of global annual rates of heart disease, obesity, and cancer (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development Health Data 2011; World Cancer Research Fund).
- Most Westerners eat an average of 50 percent more protein than their bodies need. An excess of protein causes increased strain on the kidneys, among other health issues (Simply Vegan).
- Animal-based proteins are harder for the human body to absorb than plant-based proteins. This is called protein “useability;” plantbased proteins are more “useable” by our bodies, so you don’t need as much (Nutribody Protein).
- A meat-based diet has positive environmental impact, as it requires 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticide than a vegetarian diet (University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Journal: “Vegetarianism and the Environment: The Need for Sustainable Diets”).
Because China is just starting to catch up to Western cultures with its rising meat consumption, choosing to go vegetarian for families is less popular here. We need to be industrious when it comes to providing healthy, balanced meals outside of a meat-centric paradigm.
Everyone will immediately express concern that your children are going to lack protein. Have no fear; it is very difficult to become proteindeficient in a country that is not experiencing famine, particularly if care is taken to include to a diversity of foods in your child’s diet.
Below is a table with combined research findings from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine, National Academies. It outlines some vital protein, iron and calcium requirements for children:
Note: Daily Reference Intakes (DRIs) have been developed since 1996 by the Food and Nutrition Board, Commission on Life Sciences, and the National Research Council, to replace the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).
*Not enough study has been done regarding pre-pubescent children and calcium requirements, but The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “intake levels of about 800 mg/day [of calcium]are associated with adequate bone mineral accumulation in prepubertal children (4–8 years of age).”
Protein-Rich Food Suggestions for Vegans:
1 cup of cooked dried beans = 12g protein
1 cup of soy milk or soy yogurt = 7g protein
4 ounces of tofu = 9g protein
1 tablespoon of peanut butter or peanuts = 4g protein
1 slice of bread = 3g protein
½ cup of oatmeal = 15g protein
Additional Food Suggestions for Vegetarians:
1 cup of milk = 8g protein
1 egg = 6g protein
100 grams of cheddar cheese (3.5 ounces) = 25g protein
As paleo-oriented nutritionist Olivia Lee points out: “There are no readily available plant sources [of B12]in the market here, so strict vegans will need [regular]blood tests [to ensure adequate levels]. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, egg yolks, skim milk powder, cheeses that are ripened with bacteria or molds are good sources. The only plant source of B12 is from tempeh (fermented soy beans).”
Many vegans take a B12 supplement or consume fortified products like soymilk or breakfast cereal that contains B12. Another source is nutritional yeast, an excellent starting place for a cheese-like vegan sauce, but it can be difficult to find in Beijing. Shoppers should try looking at health food stores like Lohao City.
We must ensure that vegetarian or vegan children consume adequate sources of iron. Olivia Lee explains that iron deficiency is dangerous because of its connection to cognitive development. There is no outward evidence of deficiency until it is already too late.
Keep in mind the need to maximize iron absorption. The consumption of calcium-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich ones hinders iron absorption. It’s best to wait half an hour before or after eating iron-rich foods before introducing dairy products.
Also, studies have shown that cooking in cast iron pots actually increases the iron content of your culinary concoction. And yes, it’s safe!
While dark green leafy vegetables are commonly considered to be high in iron, this iron is not easily absorbed by our bodies, explains Lee.
Iron-Rich Food Suggestions for Vegetarians and Vegans from “12 Top Vegan Iron Sources”:
½ cup of cooked soybeans = 4.4mg iron
1 ounce of pumpkin seeds = 4.2mg iron
½ cup of tomato paste = 3.9mg iron
½ cup of white beans = 3.9mg iron
½ cup of tofu = 1.8mg iron
½ cup of cooked spinach = 3.2mg iron
2 tbsp of blackstrap molasses = 7mg iron
1 cup of cooked oatmeal = 1.6mg iron
To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, serve food containing vitamin C as part of the meal, such as citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli.
Concerned onlookers will most readily ask after your vegan child’s calcium intake. Milk and other dairy products are a fine source for vegetarians. For vegans, Reed Mangels, author of Calcium in the Vegan Diet, suggests some plant-based sources of calcium:
Calcium-Rich Food Suggestions for Vegans
1 cup broccoli = 94mg calcium
1 cup of cooked soybeans = 175mg calcium
¼ cup of almonds = 89mg calcium
1 cup of soymilk = 80mg calcium
1 cup of bok choy = 158mg calcium
2 tbsp of tahini = 128mg calcium
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are plentiful in meats, are essential for good health and should be actively introduced in their non-meat forms. They boost the nervous, immune, reproductive and cardiovascular systems and are important in cell membrane formation and function.
Good sources of Omegas-3 are hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, flax seed oil, and walnuts, to name a few.
Non-meat sources of zinc are more difficult for human bodies to absorb. According to The National Institute of Health, one way to make plant zinc more absorbable is by “soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them or allowing them to sit after soaking until sprouts form.” It is also good to consume leavened grain foods, like bread rather than crackers.
While it may be more of a challenge to raise children on a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s definitely not impossible. Don’t let the critics scare you! In a policy statement, the American Dietetic Association points to research showing that vegetarian kids and teens take in less cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat, and eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber.
“Vegetarianism can be conducive to a healthy lifestyle, but you just have to balance out what you omit [in nutrition],” says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee.
Here’s hoping this article will help you do just that.
Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Health Data 2011
World Cancer Research Fund
The National Institute of Health
“12 Top Vegan Iron Sources”
by Melissa Breyer
“Vegetarianism and the Environment: The Need for Sustainable Diets”
by Stephanie Kraftson, Jana Pohorelsky, and Alex Myong (University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Journal)
Calcium in the Vegan Diet
by Reed Mangels, PhD., R.D.
The Vegetarian Resource Group
The American Dietetic Association
American Academy of Pediatrics
“Healthy Fats For Vegetarian and Vegan Diets: How To Get The Right Balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 In Your Diet”
by Dr. Linda Posch, MS SLP ND