Vegetarian children: on the rise in the country, the habit raises debates between parents and doctors

SAO PAULO — Gabriel Portela de Castro was just over three years old when he told his parents that he no longer wanted to eat meat. Back then, I just reacted by spitting out that kind of food. Today, at age 11, he has become a convinced ovolactovegetarian, that is, he maintains his rejection of red meat, fish or chicken, but accepts eggs and dairy products.

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— I don’t eat because I don’t like animals being treated badly. My parents eat meat, the choice is theirs. At first, they asked me to eat too, but when they understood why I didn’t want to, they stopped asking – says the boy.

The mother, nurse Fernanda Portela, says that her son’s decision has already caused a lot of concern because of the fear of lack of vitamins and, therefore, has created the habit of taking the boy for regular blood tests. Over the years, the only change was the drop in the levels of vitamin B12, a compound that plays a role in the central nervous system, which is abundantly present in meat. Gabriel then started taking replacement supplements.

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Cases of vegetarian children have become increasingly common in pediatricians and nutritionists’ offices. There are still no official numbers that prove the trend, but it is the clear perception of specialists.

“We have seen an increase in our daily clinical life. This has been caused mainly by the exchange of information between them, which is very strong – says Mauro Fisberg, coordinator of the Center of Excellence in Nutrition and Food Difficulties at Instituto Pensi, linked to Hospital Sabará, in São Paulo.

Averse to animal protein since he was 3 years old, Gabriel Portela de Castro is now, at 11, a convinced ovolactovegetarian, that is, he maintains his rejection of red meat, fish or chicken, but accepts eggs and dairy products Photo: Arquivo Pessoal
Averse to animal protein since he was 3 years old, Gabriel Portela de Castro is now, at 11, a convinced ovolactovegetarian, that is, he maintains his rejection of red meat, fish or chicken, but accepts eggs and dairy products Photo: Arquivo Pessoal

The phenomenon is global. In the United States, an estimated one in 200 children are vegetarians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. In Israel, the rate reaches 20% among this group.

early start

According to Fisberg, the most common age group for starting vegetarianism is from the age of eight, but it can start much earlier, as in the case of Gabriel. The reasons for a child or teenager to refuse to eat meat are varied: sustainability, for example from parents, religious beliefs, sustainability and, most common, avoiding animal suffering.

Any parent would ask themselves here: Is this really an appropriate diet for those who are in full swing?

The Brazilian Society of Pediatrics created a practical guide on vegetarianism in childhood and adolescence, which warns of the risk of nutritional deficiencies, since the little ones end up limiting themselves to consuming a smaller group of foods. But, with the proper supervision of a professional and parental supervision, there is no danger in growing up away from animal products.

Attention must be paid especially to nutritional deficiencies. The cases are individual and depend on the restrictions, which may exclude meat, eggs and dairy products or part of them. It is also necessary to evaluate the child’s or adolescent’s diet as a whole, whether it contains pulses, fruits and grains.

The nutritionist at the Children’s Institute of the Hospital das Clínicas in São Paulo, Bianca Manzoli, also warns of another aspect: eating disorders.

– Low acceptance of meat can happen in the little ones by what we call food refusal, a type of disorder. In these cases, children eat the same foods, and the choice may involve texture, color, smell or flavor. These questions can happen around the age of two, and can go on until the sixth. Many of them refuse meat, especially red, because it is more fibrous and requires more chewing.

To maintain health, says the expert, it is necessary to avoid the monotony of food, especially at this stage.

— The child needs all the nutrients and the most varied diet possible. Vegetarians sometimes make the mistake of eating too much carbohydrate, fat, and sugar. It’s not just about taking it out, you have to reintroduce it,” explains Manzoli. — When receiving a vegetarian child, whether the option comes from her or from the family, it is up to the professional to respect the choice and guide it so that it develops well. So there is no harm done.

lack of nutrients

According to pediatrician Aline Magnino, from the ProntoBaby Group, the lack of animal foods and dairy products, in the case of vegans, can trigger a deficiency of iron, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc, which are very present in meat, chicken and fish.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian foods contain vitamin B12 in sufficient amounts to supply the recommended daily allowance, such as certain types of cheese, eggs and milk. This is the only nutrient a vegetarian may need to supplement even with a well-planned diet. Dark vegetables (such as broccoli and kale), dried fruits (such as apricots and raisins), nuts and seeds (such as walnuts and sunflower seeds), pulses (such as beans and soybeans), and garlic can all be good sources of calcium. Cereals, whole foods, and oilseeds are good sources of zinc, and dark green vegetables, cereals, pulses, oilseeds, and seeds have great iron content.

The substitutions, however, must always be guided by a nutritionist, nutritionist or pediatrician because often the compounds present in these foods can be absorbed in different ways by the body.

Vitamin supplementation is indicated only when there is nutritional deficiency. Just as there is no need to take exams all the time. But parents should watch for signs such as poor appetite, excessive tiredness, memory problems, infections, and poor school performance.

In the case of young vegans, once again, care must be redoubled, since the restrictions are greater and the supplement must be different from the conventional one.