From one day to the next, your child decides that he or she will no longer eat meat. Is a vegetarian diet dangerous for his growth? Will he have deficiencies? It all depends on what he accepts to eat. Laurence Haurat's advice, psychologist and dietician. 

My child is vegetarian, is it a danger for his growth?

More and more children are refusing to eat meat in order to stop making animals suffer. A decision that can create tensions. How to react as a parent? Of course, respect your child's choice and take the opportunity to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The whole family can benefit from the vegetarianism of one of its members.

Vegetarianism in children: why doesn't he want to eat meat anymore?

When Jules was about 12 years old, he saw a report on a slaughterhouse, which disgusted him from eating meat. "Since then, he has had to make do with eggs, a little fish and sometimes chicken," explains Isabelle about her son, who, at 14 years old today, remains very reluctant to eat meat.

Already, understanding his choice can help play down the situation. "There are rarely deep philosophical convictions, it's still too early", underlines Laurence Haurat, psychologist and dietician. "On the other hand, the young person can feel disgust towards food that he finds for example too strong in taste or too much linked to death".

Another reason invoked by psychologists: by refusing a food appreciated by his parents, the teenager distinguishes himself from them. And what could be more sensitive than the table, the main place for family exchanges? The best thing to do for them is to respect their choices while adapting their menus to their needs.

How to react to my child's vegetarianism?

It is sometimes difficult for parents to understand their child's desire to stop eating meat. Try to question them by taking their decision seriously. Where does this need come from? What is important to him? You can even take advantage of this new diet by changing the eating habits of the whole family. The goal: to make this change help you move to a healthier lifestyle, based on respect for each member of the family. As you can see, it's vital to talk about mutual respect!

If the child changes his or her eating habits, his or her family members do not have to stop eating meat, but can try new foods and increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. It is important to remember that a vegetarian diet, with a sufficient supply of protein, is good for the health.

If the child associates eating meat with murder, tensions may arise. In this case, try to turn the conflict into a lesson in empathy and tolerance, for example between siblings.

 Also read : What is the ideal breakfast for a child?

 What are the effects of a plant-based diet in children?

The good news is that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, vegetarian children and teens are less likely than their non-vegetarian peers to become overweight, obese and therefore susceptible to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"Vegetarian diets have some healthy living benefits. Evidence suggests that the intake of total fat, saturated fat, vegetable servings and fruit is healthier in these adolescents, who consume less fast food, salt, regular soft drinks and fruit drinks," writes the medical journal Paediatrics & Child Health (Source 1).

Parents need to be vigilant in ensuring that vegetarian children are getting enough iron. A nutritionally balanced vegetarian diet can be complicated to implement if the child has picky eaters. In this case, do not hesitate to ask for advice from a nutrition professional.

How to feed a vegetarian child and avoid deficiencies?

Remember that your child must eat food rich in protein, fiber, iron and energy every day. Until about 18 years of age, nutritional needs must be met to ensure harmonious growth. Children and teenagers often reject meat, but continue to eat eggs, dairy products and sometimes fish. Here are the daily requirements and the foods that will provide them. 

Calcium, a key element to watch

Another key element to watch is calcium. It plays an essential role in the acquisition and preservation of bone capital. As it is largely provided by dairy products, if the child eats sufficient quantities, everything is fine. If not, he should be encouraged to consume certain fruits and vegetables (citrus fruits, cabbage) whose calcium content is not negligible, certain mineral waters, not to mention fruit juices or cereals supplemented with calcium.

Iron, a key element of a balanced diet

There are also questions about iron: iron from plants is much less well assimilated by the body than iron from animal products. It is therefore necessary to adjust the quantities of iron-rich pulses (lentils, chickpeas), and to consume in the same meal foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, kiwis), which promote the intestinal absorption of iron. Think also of seeds, brown rice and vegetables rich in iron: Brussels sprouts, spinach, red peppers, tomatoes... For a delicious dessert, try dark chocolate and strawberries.

The signs of iron deficiency are great fatigue, increased susceptibility to infections and decreased intellectual performance.

Even more attention should be paid to the teenage girl, who may have significant iron loss during her period. Encourage her to eat at least white meat. If she shows abnormal signs of morning fatigue, consult the doctor. He can prescribe a supplement over a few months.

Vegetarian or vegan diet?

More radical, some people may adopt a vegan diet, which means refusing all animal by-products. Vegans therefore do not eat meat, fish, dairy products and eggs - no animal products.

They will, however, lack an essential element, vitamin B12. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can lead to anemia and neurological problems.

"Overall, the strictly vegan diet is not satisfactory from a nutritional point of view", underlines Laurence Haurat. "Strictly vegan people are vulnerable to vitamin B12 deficiency, which is only found in animal products. Supplements or fortified foods are therefore essential," adds the medical journal Paediatrics & Child Health .

The ideal? Convince your child to eat at least dairy products or eggs. And make sure your child gets the right amount of protein, which is essential for his or her growth. You should therefore offer cereals and legumes, the two main sources of vegetable protein, every day. If necessary, the doctor can prescribe a food supplement or yeast.

Can the family meal be adapted to the vegetarian child?

Start by determining which dishes your family already likes that don't contain meat, such as pasta with tomato sauce.

Next, think about what dishes can be easily adapted into a vegetarian version, replacing the meat with tofu or veggie patties. Finally, keep easy options like veggie burgers in the freezer to make life easier on some nights. Involving vegetarian kids in the kitchen is a great way to give them control over their choices and teach them a valuable skill.

Here are some interesting foods you can use in the vegetarian diet:

  •     Legumes (beans, lentils, dried peas...);

  •     Cooked beans (soybeans, white beans, small white beans, black beans, dry beans);

  •     Soy products;

  •     Nuts and creamy nut butters;

  •     Iron-fortified cereals;

  •     Dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk...);

  •     Fatty fish from the sea (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines);

  •     Eggs;

  •     Tofu;

  •     Peanut butter;

  •     Whole grain breads and cereals;

  •     Dark green leafy vegetables;

  •     Fresh and dried fruits... 

You can add oil or margarine to pasta, rice, vegetables or bread (but not too much!). This will increase the energy and fatty acid content. For cooking, choose peanut oil or vegetable margarine. It is advisable to consume oil daily in moderate quantities for the intake of essential fatty acids, which are involved in the maturation of the nervous system of children.

Note: vegetarian steaks, vegetarian patties... and other "similiviande" products found in supermarkets are a good alternative, but some are very salty and contain additives. Give them to your child in moderation, and pay attention to the list of ingredients, in order to choose the most natural ones.

Vegetarian diet and adolescence

As for adolescence, the vegetarian diet would not have any particular impact on growth, notes the medical journal Paediatrics & Child Health : "according to limited data, the vegan or vegetarian diet does not have an impact on adolescent growth.

However, "there is concern that a vegetarian diet may mask an eating disorder even though a causal link is not believed," she continues. "Therefore, attention should be paid to the details of the diet, general health, and mental health of the vegetarian teenager when evaluating them."