One of the most oft heard concerns about avoiding meat products in your baby’s diet is that if you don’t feed a baby meat, he won’t get enough protein for proper growth. Many people feel that meat, particularly red meat, is the only real source of protein. This is false. There are two main sources of protein; meat and plants. At face value, though, you might see why people would think that – the main element in meat that is essential would be all nine amino acids, and no one plant offers all nine. However, by eating combinations of vegetables and grains, you can combine the amino acids to form a complete protein.
It’s important to realize, though, that many of us overestimate the amount of protein needed for proper nutrition. Current recommended values are approximately one gram of protein per pound of body weight during the first year of life, with the ratio dropping to half a gram of protein per pound in the second through fifteenth year.
In fact, Reed Mangels, PhD, RD and nutrition advisor for The Vegetarian Resource Group cites the necessary amount of protein needed as one of the biggest misconceptions facing parents of vegetarian babies. “Probably the concern is that they won’t get enough protein. Children who are getting enough calories and eating a variety of healthy foods including dried beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can meet protein needs.”
Mangels continued, “Vegetarian children tend to be leaner and to have lower cholesterol levels. Since weight and cholesterol track into adulthood (overweight kids tend to become overweight adults, for instance), a vegetarian diet can give a child a good start.”
Vandana Sheth, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, has several hints for parents who would like to ensure that their children obtain the necessary nutrition while avoiding meat and, in some cases, dairy and eggs. Among these recommendations are:
- Minimize intake of heavily refined foods.
- High-fat dairy foods like cheese and eggs should be limited due to saturated fat content and because they can displace plant foods.
- Vegans need a regular source of vitamin B12 in their diets and a source of vitamin D, if sun exposure is limited.
- Do not restrict dietary fat in children younger than two. For older children, foods higher in fat (eggs, nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils) help meet nutrient and energy needs.
- Infants who are exclusively breast fed should have supplements of iron after four to six months and, if sun exposure is limited, a source of vitamin D.
- If the mother’s diet is not fortified, breast-fed vegan infants should receive vitamin B12 supplements.
In their official statement on children and vegetarianism, The American Dietetic Association makes a strong point: Parents should pay special attention to children’s calcium and iron intake. If your child doesn’t eat any meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy foods, be sure to find good food sources of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and zinc.
Shira Lane is the director and producer of the feature documentary “Got the Facts on Milk?” released this month. She advocates a full vegan diet for babies and children, saying, “Avoiding cow’s milk and other dairy related products is crucial to a baby or child’s health. The protein in cow’s milk is known to give an allergic reaction to 50% of children, with side effects including ear infections and respiratory problems like asthma, eczema and constant runny noses. Also, many studies have linked cows’ milk consumed by babies to subsequent diabetes. The beta-lactoglobulin, a protein in cow’s milk but not human milk, prompts babies to make antibodies that also attack glycodelin, a protein vital for training the immune system.”
If you’d like to raise your baby as a vegetarian, consult your pediatrician and work closely to be certain that your child gets enough of the critical nutrients. Create a support group. Educate your extended family, who may be apt to slip the forbidden foods to the baby. Teach your children why you are making this choice, and explore new recipes. With very little effort, you may find that this dietary choice is one you can get behind!