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Nutrition Tips for Healthy Vegetarian Kids

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Parents who eat vegetarian diets are often nutrition savvy, but there are different nutritional requirements for children and adults. Most importantly, children have higher metabolic rates and energy requirements.

Parents who eat vegetarian diets are often nutrition savvy, but there are different nutritional requirements for children and adults. Most importantly, children have higher metabolic rates and energy requirements.

Well-fed vegetarian children may actually be healthier because they escape contamination from hormones and other chemicals fed to food animals. Eating lower on the food chain means kids accumulate fewer pesticides and other toxic organo-chlorines.

Vegetarian children unlike their carnivorous counterparts usually get sufficient fibre. But bulky, fibrous foods fill up small stomachs before enough calories are consumed to match their energy needs. Preschool vegetarians need plenty of higher-calorie, nutrient-dense foods such as nut butters and dried fruit.

Some nutrients are found predominantly in animal products, so vegetarians must make sure these nutrients are included in their diets. Iron is required for making red blood cells. Children who eat beans and grains several times a day and dark green vegetables along with a source of vitamin C at mealtime (to increase iron absorption) have plenty of red blood cells. It's important to add these to vegetarian children's diets as when levels are too low, anemia results, which may cause learning and psycho-motor problems, fatigue and infection. Despite the risk of lower iron levels affecting learning in young children, older vegetarian children may actually have higher IQs than carnivores.

Vitamin B12 is found in all animal products, so deficiency is of primary concern for vegans. B12 is stored in the body and a deficiency can take several years to manifest. Since dietary B12 is incorporated into breast milk it's important for breast-feeding vegans to get enough B12 themselves. A B12 deficiency in the baby can cause severe neurological damage; in young vegan children, it can slow growth. Supplementation is in order for breast-feeding vegans, their babies and vegan children.

Bring on the Minerals

The high fibre of vegetarian diets retains some minerals in the gut, reducing absorption of iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and selenium. A zinc deficiency is more critical in children than adults. Children need relatively more zinc per kilogram of body weight. Also, adults can adapt to a low-zinc diet by absorbing more from their food, whereas children are unable to make this adjustment.

Because lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products a good source of zinc they are usually not deficient in it. However, the main source of zinc in vegan diets is wheat, the same grain that inhibits its absorption. Insufficient zinc may reduce appetite and decrease resistance to infection. Parents should make sure vegan children eat nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains in order to get enough zinc.

Many children raised dairy-free have low calcium intakes, causing poor teeth or bone problems. Children who drink milk substitutes not fortified with calcium are most at risk. These children should drink two cups of fortified nut or rice milk daily and eat foods like dark leafy greens and salmon (with bones) rich in calcium.

Vegan children in gloomy climates may not get enough sunshine to manufacture vitamin D. On rare occasions, young dark-skinned vegans even have rickets, a vitamin D deficiency disease, when they are breast-fed exclusively past six months. Breast milk alone doesn't provide enough vitamin D for darker-skinned toddlers, so if they don't get a of couple hours of sunlight a week, a supplement is suggested.

Children under two need cholesterol to form myelin nerve coatings and breast milk is high in cholesterol. After age two, cholesterol requirements decline and children can make all the cholesterol they need in their livers. School-age vegetarians and carnivores have the same cholesterol levels. Vegetarian children have a higher ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fatty acids in their diets, which could lead to healthier adulthoods.

Careful food choices are necessary: crackers, pastries and fried food all contain harmful trans-fatty acids. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in breast milk, cold-water fish, plant sources such as flax or pumpkin seeds and dark green vegetables such as kale or chard. DHA is important for fetal and infant brain development. Plant-based DHA supplements are available; vegans should consider them if their diets lack this essential fatty acid.

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