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Vegetarian nutrition for children: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help



Childhood nutrition has a significant influence on health and development throughout life. As children grow, their nutritional needs are much greater than those of adults and the consequences of a poor diet will be long lasting. A good diet will protect against everyday illness and ensure the development of strong bones and teeth, firm muscles and healthy tissues.

Nutritional research has shown that a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients necessary for a child's growth and development. Well-informed dietitians, doctors and other health professionals now accept that vegetarianism is a healthy option for infants and children of all ages.

The Pre-School Child (Age 1-5)

The pre-school child, whether vegetarian or not, is almost totally dependent on others for its food. The eating habits of parents and other carers will be the ones that the child imitates and acquires. Some pre-school children are naturally sensitive to the use of animals for food and occasionally refuse all meats even if their parents aren't vegetarian.

Whether vegetarian or not, it is vital that children have a well balanced diet. This is particularly important during the pre-school years, as this is a time of rapid growth and development. The nutrients to particularly watch are calcium, iron, zinc, protein, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Children should be offered a variety of foods which they can enjoy and should not be forced to eat anything if they are determined to resist. Food and eating should not be allowed to become an issue as children can be very fussy at this age.

Good eating habits should begin now, as likes and dislikes will be influenced by what is offered in these early years. High fibre, low fat diets, recommended for adults, are not suitable for children of this age, as explained below. The emphasis should be on family eating habits that are healthy and sensible. Foods containing a lot of sugar and salt should be avoided.

As they are growing very rapidly, young children need a lot of dietary energy (calories) relative to their small size. A diet that is too high in fibre or very low in fat will not provide sufficient concentrated energy or nutrients. Frequent meals containing food of relatively high nutrient and energy density are important, although young children often have marked fluctuations in appetite.

Nutritious snacks between meals will help ensure that enough food is eaten. Try and avoid shop-bought sweets, biscuits and cakes, sweetened fizzy drinks and salty snacks such as crisps. Offer sandwiches fruit, scone or malt bread and home-made cake or biscuit instead. Sweets given occasionally as a special treat will not do any harm.

Unless your child is prone to being overweight you can try to increase the energy density of foods. Vegetable oil can be added to foods like mashed lentils or beans. Include nut and seed purées such as tahini and smooth peanut butter, cheese, yoghurt, soya products, such as tofu and veggieburgers, and if liked, avocado. Try to include as wide a variety of foods as possible, bearing in mind that children may be fussy or find some foods too strong in taste. Consumption of fresh, frozen or juiced fruit and vegetables should be encouraged.

Assessment of a child's growth should be made over a period of time, as growth at this age is often very uneven and interspersed with sudden increases in height and weight.

Sugar and teeth

Children naturally like the taste of sugar and sweet foods. Though sugary foods do provide calories, they have little else of nutritional value and are a major cause of tooth decay. Whilst it may not be practical to ban sugar altogether, it should be limited. It is better to discourage the development of a sweet tooth now. A small amount of sugar with otherwise healthy desserts such as yoghurt, soya puddings and rice pu