Q: My daughter has decided to follow a vegetarian diet. Do I need to worry about protein deficiency? ~ Worried Mom
This is one of the most common questions that pediatricians are asked. A vegetarian diet, and especially one that includes fish, can be a very healthy option.
Learn more about nutrition for vegetarians and ways your family can shift to a vegetarian diet.
Q: Does my child need to eat meat to get enough protein?
Complete nutrition, including adequate protein, can easily be obtained without eating meat. Meat is completely unnecessary if a diet is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, whole grains, eggs and dairy.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, eating healthy protein sources like fish, beans and nuts in place of red meat, especially processed red meat, lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and colon cancer.
It is not necessary to seek out processed versions of meat substitutes like Tofurky, Meatless Meatballs or Chik’n Patties in search of protein. Real food – beans, nuts and fish – can provide all of the protein your child needs.
Q: My child won’t eat fish. How can she get adequate protein?
If your child does not eat fish, make sure she gets at least three servings a day of some combination of dairy, egg, beans or nuts.
It is always healthiest to obtain nutrients in their real food packages, rather than from a medicine bottle. It is not necessary for vegetarians to take a multivitamin; eating real food supplies the best source of all nutrients.
A vegetarian diet is not inherently less nutritious than a meat-containing diet, and in many cases, it is healthier.
Bottom line, meat or no meat, children should consume mostly natural, plant-based foods and a minimum of processed foods, simple carbs and sugar.
Q: How can we approach a vegetarian diet as a family?
The whole family can benefit from the healthful switch to a well-balanced vegetarian diet.
- If your family is interested in trying a vegetarian diet, make meal planning and cooking a family event.
- Search the internet for appealing new recipes.
- Plan trips together to the grocery store.
- See what catches your child’s eye in the produce section and the aisles stocked with beans and whole grains. Quinoa, farro and brown rice are delicious additions to the family meal rotation.
Q: My child wants to switch to a vegan diet. How can I be sure she is meeting her nutritional needs?
Beware of vegan diets that contain no dairy, fish or eggs. With a vegan diet it can be difficult to consume healthful levels of essential amino acids, B vitamins, calcium and iron.
Only foods from animals provide vitamin B-12, so if your child is vegan she will need an artificial source of B-12. Without dairy products, natural calcium must be obtained from plentiful helpings of dark green vegetables, tofu, figs and beans. Dark green vegetables and beans can adequately supply iron.
About the blogger: Dr. Carolyn Sax is a primary care pediatrician at Hyde Park Pediatrics, a Boston Children’s Hospital Community of Care Preferred Pediatric Practice with locations in Hyde Park and Milton, and an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
To find a PPOC provider by using our Find a Doctor tool, look for the “PPOC Member” designation on the physician’s profile.