Diets are becoming an increasingly popular trend, not only in Austin but across the country. However, are these diets safe to follow on a regular basis, especially for children? Many think diets like veganism or vegetarianism provide clean nutrition while others don’t think they provide enough nutrients. One thing most people can agree on is that a balanced meal is crucial, regardless of the person’s age.
A nationwide study conducted by The Vegetarian Resource Group found that about 3% of Americans aged anywhere between 8 and 18 considered themselves vegetarian or vegan. This may not seem like much but nationwide, this amounts to approximately 1.4 million people. And, according to Austin-based certified dietician Sarah Harris, this amount is only growing.
“As people have become more aware (of) ethical farming practices, especially in places like Austin, (people) are very conscientious of what kinds of meats they’re buying and want to find locally raised and pasture-raised meats,” Harris says. “Those aren’t always accessible, so a lot of people tend to lean more toward vegetarianism.”
Additionally, a MinnPost article analyzed a study, showing that only 0.25% of American children had an ideal diet by 2016. Rather, 67% of teens had poor diets, and 53% of kids aged between 8 and 11 had poor diets as well. So are vegan and vegetarian diets beneficial for children? Or do they do more harm than good?
Harris, who has been working in children’s nutrition for more than 12 years, says she supports kids following these diets, as long as they’re getting the nutrients they need.
“I like to think of these diets more as plant-based because we get the benefits by making sure we are including as many plants as possible when we choose to stay away from meats and animal products,” Harris says. “When I say plant-based, we are not talking about a diet full of cheese, pasta, pizza or soy-based meat products; we are talking about how we get nutrients from eating plants.”
According to Harris, some benefits associated with plant-based diets include lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancers and diabetes.
However, along with benefits, there are also potential risks of following these diets.
Nina Miller is a certified health coach and has been interested in nutrition from a young age. She advises against children participating in vegan or vegetarian diets because of the lack of protein.
“Kids need a lot more protein than adults,” Miller says. “Kids are growing, and protein helps their essential body parts, tissues (and) organs grow. So, to me, it makes more sense for adults to be vegetarian.”
Still, Miller claims there are certain situations when a child could healthily follow one of these diets, such as if they have supplement help or a healthy genetic disposition However, she doesn’t generally recommend it.
With a well-balanced diet, Harris says children can still receive their necessary protein intake.
“Lack of protein isn’t really a problem, even for most strict vegetarians. Many foods have proteins like grains,” Harris says. “When somebody is following a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, they need to make sure they’re including things like beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, soy milk, tofu and quinoa — all great plant-based sources of protein.”
One diet many people turn to if they want to avoid meat from land-based animals and poultry while still consuming protein is pescetarianism, as this diet consists of eating fully plant-based foods with the exception of seafood. Both Miller and Harris support seafood as a good source of protein, but only in moderation. According to the FDA, some fish (like some species of tuna) can contain high mercury levels, which can pose serious health risks to children.
However, Harris says there are situations when these diets aren’t recommended. For instance, if your child has multiple allergies or is a picky eater, these diets may not be the best for them.
“If a kid is already picky, even if Mom and Dad are offering beans and nuts, it’s not nutrition if they’re not eating,” Harris says. “So if they’re not going to eat those foods that are providing them the protein and nutrients they need, they could be lacking in some critical nutrients.”
Whether or not you decide to have your child follow a restrictive diet, it’s best practice to consider their nutrition as a whole. Harris says it’s important to not only focus on cutting out foods but also bringing in foods as well.
“A lot of times, people focus on foods they’re cutting out and eliminating,” Harris says. “I like to make sure people are focusing on what foods are we adding in (and) what are we including to make sure you’re still getting a well-rounded diet?”