Children and teenagers change their dietary preferences often. It is simply a part of the exploration that is an essential part of growing up. One week, pizza is the only food that they want to eat, the next week, it’s sushi.
A common choice that arises is the decision to stop eating meat or to avoid all animal–based products altogether. Maybe your 8-year old finds out what their favourite chicken fingers are made of. It could be that your 12-year old watches a video on the climate crisis and how a plant-based diet can help. Perhaps you eat a vegetarian diet and want your entire family to follow this lifestyle. There are a myriad of reasons to eat plant-based foods.
So, is it safe for children to leave out animal products? Yes, with planning, a vegetarian diet can provide most of the nutrients that growing kids need.
Iron and vitamin B12 are the main nutrients to monitor if your child adopts a plant-based diet. Simple blood tests can let you know if your child has sufficient iron and vitamin B12 levels. These nutrients are important for proper function of the nervous system, for resilient immunity, and for attention and focus. If you notice that your child is unusually tired, lacks mental focus, gets ear infections frequently, or is losing their hair, then consider getting them tested.
Iron and vitamin B12 can be supplemented if they are low. It may be beneficial to seek guidance from medical professionals if supplements may be required. Your child can focus on eating more dark leafy greens, lentils, beans, tofu, almonds, cashews, quinoa, sea vegetables, and apricots to get more of these nutrients.
Children of certain constitutions can adapt to a vegetarian diet more easily than others. In the end, some kids (and adults) really do thrive on a plant-based foods diet.
Be aware that some teenagers adopt a ‘healthy’ vegan diet to mask disordered eating patterns. They refuse animal-based foods more as a way to reduce their overall caloric intake. When your child declares they no longer want to eat meat, have a kind discussion to understand their real motivations.
Deciding to be vegetarian or vegan can launch your family into an exploration of new recipes and cuisines, new cooking techniques and how to grow your own vegetables. If you or your child has questions about following a healthy plant-based diet, then consulting with a naturopathic doctor or your medical practitioner can be helpful.
Dr. Caroline Meyer, ND