Dear Dr. Lanny: I am a lifelong vegetarian and my husband is not. Our 4-year-old daughter eats meat, among other things, but I’d like to start switching her to a vegetarian diet at home. My husband is not convinced that it’s healthy for a growing child to not eat fish, chicken, etc. He might be more persuaded if a medical professional weighed in. What do you think?
A: To eat meat, or not to eat meat? That is the question.
This is actually a relatively common question, although it most frequently comes up in reference to adolescents who choose to follow a vegetarian diet. In that circumstance it is the patient who has chosen their dietary course. In your daughter’s case, you are choosing what to feed your 4-year-old.
You imply that your husband is more a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. If I come down on the side of veggies, is that likely to cause family strife? More important, am I likely to get in trouble?
Although I am neither a vegetarian nor a nutritionist, I feel completely comfortable supporting the adequacy and benefit of a vegetarian diet for you, your child, and maybe even your husband.
As you are probably aware vegetarians come in several different varieties:
Those, strictly speaking not vegetarians, who avoid all meat, or possibly just red meat.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat milk products, eggs and plants, but not meat.
Lacto-vegetarians, who skip the eggs as well.
Vegans, who eat only plant material.
(For now, I will assume you are not inquiring about a vegan diet for your child.)
The more restrictive the diet you wish to follow, the more you must be aware of possible areas of nutritional deficiency and plan accordingly.
Here are the most important nutrients that could be insufficient in a vegetarian diet and my advice for making sure your child gets enough of them:
Iron, important in carrying oxygen in the blood, is most abundant in red meat. It is also found in egg yolks, dark leafy veggies and iron-fortified foods, such as cereals and grains. Iron-containing vitamins or iron supplements can be used, but whereas a bottle of vitamins accidentally ingested by a child may just cause stomach upset, a bottle of vitamins with iron can be fatal. Better to not have such a hazard in the house.
Vitamin B12, necessary in the nervous system, is probably not a concern except for those who do not eat dairy products or meat. Fortified cereals, nutritional yeast and fortified soy products provide adequate vitamin B12.
Calcium, for healthy strong bones, is the reason milkshakes were created. Yogurt, tofu, figs, calcium-fortified orange juice, soy drinks and such kid favorites as kale and okra are other good sources of calcium.
Vitamin D, crucial in calcium metabolism and therefore in growth and maintenance of healthy bones, is most available in fish and fish oil. Milk is supplemented with vitamin D, as are many breakfast cereals. Humans can synthesize vitamin D, but they need sun exposure to complete the process. Concern about excess sun exposure, which can cause skin cancer, only confuses the issue. Living in a predominately overcast environment during our late fall and winter doesn’t help either.
Fill any gaps with fortified foods, additions to your child’s diet (including new and sometimes exotic foods), and, if necessary, supplements or commercial vitamins.
A vegetarian diet, particularly an organic diet, can offer significant health benefits. Unless you are buying free-range or organic meat, you are buying meat that has been fed a totally unnatural diet and that has probably been supplemented with hormones and massive amounts of antibiotics. I love antibiotics, as long as they are appropriately used to treat a bacterial disease process, not when they are a daily part of an animal’s diet.
I am not addressing the issue of how commercial beef, pork and poultry animals are treated during their time before slaughter. That is for another column. The question for this column was: “Is a vegetarian diet healthy for your child?” Occasionally a good homemade hamburger with fresh romaine or Boston lettuce and a slice of homegrown tomato is a joy to be eaten, but there is no doubt that your child can live happily and healthily ever after without meat.
In preparing this column I spoke to Wynnie Stein, one of the owners of the nationally known Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, and co-author of the venue’s series of cookbooks. Although the authors do not have a specific vegetarian cookbook for kids, she referred me to three cookbooks by Mollie Katzen: Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up; Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up; and Honest Pretzels and 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Cooks Ages 8 and Up (all published by Tricycle Press). These cookbooks include the child as chef, or assistant chef, and may lead your daughter to cooking for you, and your husband.
Although it is not a cookbook, if you are interested in what you eat, vegetarian or not, and how it came to your table, I strongly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin).
Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown sons, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.