A vegetarian diet is the considered choice for many families these days. Even babies and pregnant women can thrive with a meat-free lifestyle.
Independent research firm Harris Interactive reports that the number of vegetarian youth in the United States has increased by 70 percent in the past few years, and there are similar trends in South Africa too. This is attributed to growing environmental and animal welfare awareness and evidence of the health benefits.
It was more of a knee-jerk emotional reaction that prompted me to drop meat. As a fledgling reporter I covered a news story about a truck full of sheep that had overturned on a freeway. “They’re headed for the abattoir anyway,” quipped the photographer, as he snapped the bleating survivors. But face to woolly face with what I, too, would normally have considered lunch, I balked.
My partner, a longtime vegetarian, said nothing when I suddenly embraced his regimen of dense veggie and legume soups, and salads with nuts, seeds and cheese.
From the start
It was only when we chose to have children that I had doubts. Like many vegetarian parents-to-be, we were confronted by questions from the future grandparents and other concerned omnivores in our circle. Luckily, we had a slew of health studies and recommended nutritional guidelines to back up our decision.
What the research says
A study at Loma Linda University in California showed that vegetarians live some seven years longer than meat-eaters, and vegans, 15 years longer. The findings were confirmed by the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, an extensive 20-year study on diet and health, which found that Chinese people, who eat the least fat and animal produce, run the lowest risk of cancer, heart attack and other chronic degenerative diseases.
If this is not convincing enough, a UK study that tracked 6 000 vegetarians and 5 000 meat-eaters for 12 years found the vegetarians were 40 percent less likely to die from cancer in that time, and 20 percent less likely to die from other diseases. And, a study by the University of California has even found that children on a vegetarian diet grew taller than meat-eating children.
South African dieticians are equally positive about the benefits of vegetarianism, saying that the advantages include “a lower intake of cholesterol and saturated fats, and a higher intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, which in turn results in eating fewer sweet and salty snacks and fast foods”.
The only possible disadvantage to being a vegetarian or raising one, according to the dieticians, could be the planning, purchasing and preparing of the food needed to maintain an adequate diet. “Although there is much more variety available in the shops and markets these days, it can still be a bit more time-consuming.”
Responding to fears of deficiencies during vulnerable periods such as pregnancy, infancy and adolescence, one dietician says: “Current nutritional thinking is that following a properly planned vegetarian diet can be beneficial for all stages of life, including these. There is no cause for concern if a variety of foods are consumed to ensure adequate intake.”
Healthy, full-term babies can meet all their iron requirements with breast milk or iron-fortified soy formula until they are four to six months old, though vegan mothers may require iron supplements. After that, babies will need some extra dietary iron, which is readily supplied by iron-fortified rice cereal.
The dieticians suggest possible supplementation as vegetarian children grow. “This might include iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and omega-3 or flax oil. It would need to be assessed individually, as many foods are already supplemented with these vitamins and minerals.”
Parents of vegan children, who eat no animal produce, need to plan their diets particularly carefully, preferably in consultation with a dietician.
Except for vitamin B12 and a folic acid supplement, which is recommended for most pregnant moms, I ate our usual lacto-ovo-vegetarian fare through a picture-perfect pregnancy, and produced a beautiful son who I breast-fed for 18 months, introducing him to rice cereal and our foods from six months.
Three years later I repeated the routine with his brother.
The younger once wrote in a school project: “I’m meat-free for my health and for the planet.”
If following a vegetarian diet, you need to seek alternative sources of protein, which include raw nuts, seeds, legumes, and meat substitutes. Today meat substitutes range from burger patties and sausages to schnitzels, pies and nuggets, and are great for lunchboxes, braais and visiting friends.
Read our article about a plant-based future.
Know your veggie-eaters
- Vegans eat no animal products, including eggs or dairy.
- Vegetarians eat no red meat but some may eat chicken or fish.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, but no meat.
- Pescetarians eat fish, but no meat or poultry.
- Fruitarians eat only fruit, nuts and seeds.
- Flexitarians follow a meat-free diet for a few days a week.
Tips for feeding a vegetarian child
- Variety is key.
- Look for fortified foods with calcium, iron and vitamin B12, including iron-fortified breakfast cereals and soy milk-based products.
- Keep reintroducing foods.
- Be adventurous. Find new ways to incorporate soya, beans and lentils in soups and stews. They are one of your most nutritious plant protein sources, say the dieticians.
- Be sneaky. Add mashed kidney beans or grated butternut, carrot or beetroot to muffins, cottage pies and other favourites; add omega-3-rich flaxseeds ground in a coffee grinder to soups, salads and porridge.
Lunchbox snacks for vegetarians
Use a cool box in summer so foods stay fresh and crisp, and pack:
- trail mix – dried fruits with nuts and seeds;
- soft dried fruits such as apple rings, apricots and raisins;
- rice cakes, plain or coated with yoghurt or carob;
- crackers with hummus, avocado dip, nut butters or vegetable extract;
- add to the above baby carrots, tomatoes and celery sticks;
- fruit-sweetened biscuits or date balls;
- baby bananas, naartjie segments, strawberries;
- soya shakes;
- soya yoghurt; and
- meat-free nuggets or pops.