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Can a vegetarian or vegan child be healthy?

It would seem that plant-based diets are the current rage all over the world, but is being a vegetarian or vegan a healthy way of life for your child?

Can a vegetarian/vegan child be healthy?
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From McDonald’s in Norway releasing a vegan burger, Col'cacchio here in South Africa offering vegan pizzas and desserts, and the general call for a healthier and more ethical society, veganism is not only here to stay, but is one of the fastest-growing lifestyles in the world.

Whether you follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle for ethical or health reasons, are considering following a plant-based diet, or you are forced to consider alternative dietary options for a child who suffers from food allergies, there is always a concern about getting the right balance of nutrients and minerals to maintain your child’s health and development.

It doesn’t help that mainstream information about health focuses on only certain sources of nutrients, giving the impression that there are no other possible sources, when that is certainly not the case.

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The question then is, can you raise a healthy child on a plant-based or vegetarian diet? Megan Bailey, a Johannesburg-based nutritional therapist, believes the answer is "yes".

“It is possible to raise a child on a vegan or vegetarian diet,” she says. “Research shows that there may be slower growth the first few years, but the children do catch up, and go through the developmental process as they should and thrive.” 

However, she adds that the diet has to be balanced and healthy.

Sometimes these diets seem inconvenient, but when it comes to your health, planning and preparation should be the order of the day anyway. Megan says: “Any healthy diet requires planning and preparation… It is just about fitting this into your lifestyle”. She adds that whatever you are used to eating on an omnivorous diet can be veganised, and it can be more nourishing and healthy.

Megan does warn of certain deficiencies that are common when diets are not healthy or balanced: Iron, Calcium, Zinc, and Iodine are all important for growth and development, while Vitamin D is pertinent for general health. There are healthy and nutritious plant-based sources for all these nutrients.

As a parent, you will always worry about whether or not your child is getting the correct balance of nutrients and may wish to augment their diet with supplements. Megan does not believe this is necessary if diets are balanced and your child is growing well. It would, however, have to be assessed on an individual basis if you are worried. Megan does warn of over-supplementation: “It is very easy to overdose on supplementation. Certain supplements can be toxic for the body if overused, such as iron.”

Regular check-ups are advised for any lifestyle, and it is no different for plant-based or vegetarian diets. Your general practitioner should determine the frequency of check-ups, and Megan recommends biannual check-ups for babies and annual ones for children.

It is easy in our age of convenience to lapse into unhealthy habits, but there is nothing more important than your health and that of your children. Regardless of your lifestyle and diet, putting a little extra effort into what you put into your body and that of your child’s can only prepare you in a positive way for the rest of your life.

To get into contact with Megan, visit her website www.ournutriearth.co.za. She offers a range of services, including an introductory course to veganism and weight loss plans.

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