5896Quality of food likely more important than plant v. animal source
- May 5, 2010Healthy Food Tip
Do you think that infants and children need meat in their diet or is it okay to raise them as vegetarians?
When it comes to various cultures throughout the world and different populations of people, the scientific research is very clear about the practice of vegetarian eating. At the population level, vegetarian eating is healthier than non-vegetarian eating for both children and adults. Virtually every chronic health problem has a lower incidence in vegetarian populations, and overall nutrient intake is of higher quality in vegetarian populations as well.
With infants, the issue is a little different, because, on a worldwide basis, the average age of weaning is between 3-4 years of age. In other words, in the majority of cultures worldwide, infants breastfeed rather than consume food directly.
Most of the studies I've seen about vegetarian children involve kids who are older, either in pre-school, elementary school, or higher grade levels. At this broad population level, the direct answer to your question is that it's not only fine to raise children as vegetarians, but this dietary practice is more likely to result in their having lower risk of chronic disease throughout their lifetime.
At an individual level, however, I believe that this decision is not quite so simple. From the very start, children will be fully unique individuals, with their own likes, dislikes, and taste preferences. They may also have unique nutrient needs that will require certain approaches to their diet. You might find that they do best and thrive on particular kinds of foods, and these foods may or may not include meats. In some cultures, there is a long-standing emphasis on a person's "constitution" (for example, the Ayurvedic tradition in India), and dietary goals always include recognition of a child's unique constitution. As children grow up, so many other social factors will begin to play a role in their eating. They may want to eat like one parent eats, or like the other eats, or like their best friends eat, and these broader aspects of eating are also important in allowing them to enjoy and appreciate food.
On the World's Healthiest Foods website (www.whfoods.org) we feature a detailed profile of vegetarian eating in the "Health-Promoting Diets" section of our website. In our "Healthy Eating for the Entire Family" section, we review dietary issues related to newborns, infants, and kids. You may want to look over each of these sections for more information about kids and vegetarian eating.
While I cannot claim that a vegetarian diet would be the best approach for a specific child because of the reasons described above, I can tell you that research studies show whole populations of vegetarian children growing up to be healthier adults than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Many children can have their full nutrient needs not only met through a vegetarian diet, but better met in this way. However, I would also want to point out that the quality of a child's food-plant or animal-is just as important, or most likely more important, than the plant versus animal source. It's possible to eat a very low-quality, highly processed, excessively high-fat, high-sugar, and low-nutrient vegetarian diet. That's one of the reasons that I am such a strong advocate for whole, natural, minimally processed, organically grown foods!
From WHFoods newsletter, May 5, 2010