Last spring my sister-in-law asked for my advice concerning her “tween” daughter, my niece, who had her heart set on becoming a vegetarian. Then today I had lunch with a dear friend who told me her 11-year old daughter had become a vegetarian about a year ago. Though my friend didn’t ask for my opinion, I offered it anyway as I firmly believe children should NOT eat a strict vegetarian diet, especially prepubescent kids. In fact, I don’t think it’s the healthiest choice for adults either, but their brains are more fully developed (in most cases) and they can choose to eat whatever they please for better or worse.
In both instances, these girls were taking a stand for vegetarianism because of their love for animals. That is a noble stance for sure, but it doesn’t take into account the health of their growing bodies. Nutrition isn’t usually something most kids consider so it’s up to adults to help them make informed decisions. It’s also a very fine line that we must tread upon carefully as most kids entering their teen years are seeking more independence from their parents, and if we cross the line, they may just do the opposite of what we know is best for them.
So here was my sister-in-law’s inquiry verbatim:
I don’t want to discourage her, but I also am not interested in being a short order chef. She has been eating the meals I prepare, but has been refusing to eat the meat. I’m fine with that, but I worry that she isn’t getting the protein and iron that she needs. The girl is fiercely independent and makes her own spinach smoothies, insisting that will cover her iron needs. And she adds chia seeds to everything, as she feels that will cover any other nutrients she’s missing. Smart girl. But I thought I’d ask the professional. Do you think it’s safe for her to go vegetarian? If so, do you have any suggestions for how I can help her fill the holes with the whole foods she craves? Serious problems as a parent. Hahaha! My kid is obsessed with eating healthy! Help!
And here was my response:
Hey, thanks for asking my opinion on this. I definitely have one (surprised?)!!! …I get the ethical issue, I do. But, a vegetarian diet is NOT healthy long-term especially for a growing child/adolescent. It’s ok for a short term “cleanse”, but otherwise I would do everything in your power to dissuade her. We humans evolved to eat animals. Period! (Why else would we have sharp canine teeth if not to eat meat?!!) I know the vegan/vegetarian population would disagree strongly. But trust me, it’s not going to get her all the healthy fat and protein she needs. …EVERY cell membrane in our bodies depends on healthy fats for their composition (i.e. animal fats!). I get that she wants to be healthy. I get that you want to respect her desires and pushing her to eat meat might make her dig her heals in even more. However, I implore you to find a way to make sure she eats a balanced diet including animal proteins, fats (including some from animals), and complex carbs. Perhaps she could leave out a certain type of meat (beef or pork, for instance) or agree to eat chicken only once a week and seafood more often. Spinach and chia seeds are great, but alone won’t give her the iron and protein she needs. Not even close! Have a conversation with her about where you source your animal proteins. Purchase only humanely raised, pastured/grass-fed animals. Only wild fish and seafood. No factory farmed anything! There are many problems with a vegetarian diet, including the fact that many vegetarians don’t actually consume many vegetables at all! They grub on simple carbs (breads, pasta, cookies, etc.) that just add to their health problems. I know several “recovering vegetarians” who have serious health issues as a result of their choice to do so when they were young and absolutely sure it was the healthiest choice. It’s not. A couple of resources come to mind if you want to research further: The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith is a book that talks about just that. Another fantastic book is Death by Food Pyramid by Denise Minger. (Side note: Denise Minger was a die hard vegan who as a teen started having serious health problems until she did significant research and discovered much to her regret that her vegan diet was largely to blame. She went on to challenge and debunk the infamous “China Study” which you can read about on her blog rawfoodsos.com.) …I’m delighted she is obsessed with eating healthy. Let’s make sure she understands what eating healthy means!
My words must have left an impact, because my niece was back to eating meat shortly after this exchange.
In my urgency to get my niece back on the right nutritional path, one important thing I completely forgot to mention is the relationship between the foods we eat and our hormone production. This is critical to children’s growing bodies. Hormones are composed of amino acids. Amino acids are derived from proteins in our diet. Some hormones, specifically our sex hormones testosterone and progesterone, are derived from lipid cholesterol. Lipid means fat. A diet devoid of animal proteins and fats does not allow for adequate hormone production. Not cool!
Vegetables are great and should take up most of the real estate on your dinner plate. But leave room for consciously raised animal protein and fat. This balance is what our bodies need to thrive.