The question: My husband and I feel very strongly about eating ethically, organically – and eating no meat. Now that our baby is beginning to eat solid foods, is it safe for us to feed her a meatless diet?
The answer: I agree that there are many benefits, nutritional and ethical, to eating a plant-based diet. Potential pitfalls do exist however, particularly in small infants whose growth and development can be negatively affected by nutritional deficiencies. It is imperative that your baby ingest adequate calories, protein, iron, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals to ensure proper growth and development. These needs can certainly be met with a meatless diet but proper care and planning is required. The assistance of a registered dietician is invaluable. Here are a few considerations.
- If you are breastfeeding, be sure that your own diet is rich in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Meats are a main source of these elements so vegetarian mothers are at risk of being deficient. Your infant is relying on your milk to supply these vital nutrients. Consider taking a multivitamin and omega-3 supplement if you are in doubt. Don’t forget that breastfed infants require a daily vitamin D supplement.
- When you start to offer solid foods (usually around 6 months of age) your vegetarian infant’s diet will not differ significantly from other babies. Cereals, fruits, and vegetables are the basic building blocks at this stage. I recommend introducing one new food at a time, gradually building up both the quantity and variety of foods offered at each meal. Infant cereals and pablums are an important source of iron at this age.
- Pediatricians now also recommend the introduction of iron and protein-rich foods at this stage. Eggs, for example, can be added to the diet as early as 6 months of age (previous guidelines suggested eggs only be served after 12 months of age). Vegetarian options include lentils, chick peas, black beans, and tofu. Vegetarian meat substitutes are another possibility, and are usually available in health food stores and supermarkets. Fortunately all of these foods are easy to mash or dice into soft, easily digestible servings. As your child approaches 9 to12 months of age, cheese, yogurt and homogenized milk can be added to the diet. Dairy products are an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and vitamin D.
While I am not vegetarian, I do believe in the benefits of eating a diet that is rich in vegetables, legumes and fish. I applaud your efforts to help your daughter develop healthy eating habits at an early age. Don't hesitate to consult your family physician, pediatrician, or registered dietician to ensure that your baby's nutritional needs are being met.
Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.
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