Ask Dr. Sears: Raising a Vegetarian Child
Q. My daughter-in-law is raising my granddaughter to be a vegetarian. The baby is only 13 months old. Is that healthy for her at such a young age?
A. Yes, it can be -- but only if your daughter-in-law observes certain nutritional precautions. It also depends on what you mean by vegetarian. Being a strict vegetarian (or a vegan) who avoids all foods of animal origin, including eggs, dairy products, fish, meat, and poultry, is very risky in kids because such diets can be too low in nutrients necessary for growing children. But in my opinion, a pesco-vegetarian diet that includes fish, dairy products, and eggs, yet excludes meat, can be extremely healthy for children of all ages. Here are the precautions your daughter-in-law should observe:
Supplement with omega 3s. A strictly vegan diet is deficient in omega 3s, healthy fats that are important for growing bodies and growing brains. A child's first source of omega 3s is breast milk, which is rich in DHA, the prime brain-building fat. After weaning, seafood is the richest source of DHA, especially in the form of coldwater fish like wild salmon. Vegans sometimes argue that you can get DHA from plant sources, such as flax and canola oils, but this is not strictly biochemically correct. While there are omega 3 fats in plant foods, the body has to go through a lot of biochemical changes to convert plant omega 3's into brain-building DHA. If your daughter-in-law should give your granddaughter a plant-form DHA supplement, algae-source DHA is a beneficial one.
Guard against vitamin deficiencies. While children can grow optimally on a diet of grains, greens, fruits, and vegetables, it's nutritionally risky. To make sure your granddaughter's diet is adequate in B-vitamins, especially B-12, have your daughter-in-law write down everything the child eats for a week and consult a professional nutritionist for what is called a nutritional analysis. This computer analysis of a weekly diet will reveal whether the child is getting adequate vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins. In my practice, I recommend that all vegans have a periodic nutritional analysis.
Mind your minerals. While kids can get enough calcium from plant foods, such as fortified orange juice, tofu, figs, whole grains, collard greens, and spinach, vegans are at risk for being deficient in two minerals: zinc (important for a high-functioning immune system) and iron (important for building healthy blood and brains). The best plant sources of iron are tofu, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, lentils, and beans, and the best vegetarian sources of zinc are tofu, artichokes, chick peas, beans, and zinc-fortified cereals. Nevertheless, it's difficult for children on a vegetarian diet to get the recommended daily 10 milligrams of zinc.
For the sake of nutritional safety, I recommend that all vegetarian children take a daily multivitamin/multimineral supplement, as well as omega 3 supplements. For more information, you may want to ask your daughter-in-law to read the chapter "Raising a Healthy Vegetarian" in my book The Family Nutrition Book.
Remember, advising a daughter-in-law on the feeding of her own child is a tricky business. It's essential that you be both politically and nutritionally correct. And stay positive -- she is, after all, instilling healthy eating habits and a love of fruits and vegetables in your grandchild.