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Senior Nutritionist, Vegan and Vegetarian Foundation

Amanda Woodvine
Senior Nutritionist

Need some nutritional knowledge or answers to niggling questions? Drop an email to the VVF's veggie health experts.


Won't eat fruit or veg?
My little boy won't eat fruit and veg though I've tried everything, from dipping them in chocolate to hiding them under his chips! Is there no hope?

answer

There are many ways to encourage young children to take fruits and vegetables - the most important is to make sure that you and your family eat them yourself. Learning by example is the best way to foster lifelong healthy eating habits.

Studies have shown that it can take several encounters with a new food before children will like it - up to a dozen! - so rejecting a food once doesn't mean a child always will. Wait a few days and re-introduce it. Your son is bound to have some favourite foods and one good technique is to serve these foods alongside new or rejected foods such as fruit and veg.

Preparing foods differently may also help to make them more palatable, as will making them look attractive. Different vegetables add various tastes and textures so a brightly-coloured stir-fry can be a good way of increasing vegetable consumption. Or instead of just an apple, try serving a fruit salad. If your child isn't hungry at mealtimes food rejection is easier so ensure your son isn't too full from snacks when you serve new foods.

You can also disguise vegetables into meals that your son does like. For instance finely chopped vegetables can be sneaked into soup. Both fruits and vegetables can also be blended to make juices. Over time children will then develop a taste for these flavours.

Also, get him involved in preparing the meals himself to help develop an interest in food as well as a life skill! Some parents find that letting children grow some of their own produce also helps them pick up tastes for foods otherwise rejected.

There's always hope, you've just got to be a bit patient!

Visit both the VVF and Viva!'s web shops to find books about raising vegetarian and vegan children. For info on why a plant-based diet is perfect for young ones, read Veggie Health for Kids - a nutritional guide for parents.


Son wants to go veggie
My son wants to go veggie but I'm concerned he won't be getting enough protein to support his growth (he's 12). What do you suggest?

answer

There is a persistent myth that meat is essential for growing children - perhaps more so than for adults. In reality, children of all ages can thrive on a lower concentration of protein in their diets than adults!

One of the main causes of death in children in developing countries is from something called protein-energy malnutrition. It usually develops in those who get too little protein and energy - and these deficiencies tend to go hand-in-hand. Diets that contain enough energy (calories) typically contain plenty of protein. The real problem is usually quantity rather than quality - not usually a problem in the West!

Wartime studies in the UK found that orphanage children grew faster than the general population when they ate a bread-based diet with only a small fraction (14 per cent) of their protein coming from milk products. These children grew no faster when nearly half their protein was from milk! Bread provided the children with plenty of energy to support their growth, whilst meeting more than double their protein needs.

Good sources of protein are pulses (peas, all types of beans, lentils), nuts, seeds, cereals and grains (bread, pasta, rice). Soya beans - in the form of soya milk, tofu (soya bean curd), imitation meats and soya sausages - are equivalent to meat in the amount and type of protein they provide. They also have the advantage of containing strong antioxidant (disease-busting) properties, are rich in fibre and phytoestrogens - chemicals that are thought to have anti-cancer properties - and are high in the essential fats lacking in many people's diets.

Swat up on the protein section of Veggie Health for Kids to find out more!


Fish oil supplements
My daughter is otherwise veggie, but I'm considering giving her fish oil supplements. Will they help improve her school grades?

answer

The evidence that fish oil can improve brain power comes mainly from trials on children with behavioural problems and is largely anecdotal, not scientific. The Durham-Oxford Study is the work usually quoted.

Over 100 children with developmental coordination disorders (DCDs) such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and dyspraxia were given a daily supplement of fish oils while others were given olive oil as a control. After three months, there were significant improvements in reading, spelling and behaviour in those taking fish oil supplements. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conclusion was that essential fatty acid (EFA) supplements are an effective way of improving the performance of children with these problems.

A follow-up trial in Durham was conducted more recently whereby three million fish oil capsules were given to 2,000 children over eight months to see if their GCSE results improved. Unfortunately the results were rather disappointing but this was not press-released by the County Council. In some very fast back-pedalling they said: "...it was never intended, and the County Council never suggested, that it would use this initiative to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of using fish oil to boost exam results." So it seems fish oil was not the magic bullet Durham Council was looking for.

Most children in the UK eat such appalling diets that nutritional deficiencies are inevitable. Correcting the deficiencies will, in many cases, improve performance of those kids. This is not the same as saying that fish oil will turn kids into geniuses, which is how the media interpreted the findings.

The Joint Health Claims Initiative operated between 2000 and 2007, checking the science behind health claims. During this period it approved claims for soya protein, oats and reduced saturated fat for their cholesterol-lowering effects and wholegrain foods for their benefits to heart health. It also approved health claims for omega-3 fats for healthy hearts. It did not approve any claims linking omega-3 fats to improved brain function.

In fact, fish oils may have no effect on cognitive ability at all and encouraging children to take them in the pursuit of cleverness may lead to far more serious health problems from toxic chemicals.

For further information, read the VVF's guide, Fish-free for life. It explains what omega-3 fats are, why they're important and recommends sources other than fish. This guide will leave you in no doubt - fish is not a health food.


Oily fish for brain development
I've raised my son vegan from birth. With so many media reports about the desirability of oily fish, I'm concerned that his brain development will have been affected?

answer

The human brain develops rapidly during the first year of life, tripling in size by the age of one. Over 60 per cent composed of fat, the brain's early development requires a good supply of polyunsaturated EFAs, which is why there are high levels in human breast milk compared to cow's milk. Cow's milk tends to be low in these types of fat but high in saturated fats, needed for rapid body growth - essential for survival in the wild.

Nutrients in breast milk have a significant effect on brain development in infants. Long-term breastfeeding is linked with higher scores in verbal, performance and IQ tests. Omega-6 arachidonic acid and omega-3 DHA are both important fats. Attempts to alter the fat composition of cow's milk to meet human requirements involved feeding cows fish meal, soya beans and flaxseed. Flaxseed produced a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio but you could, of course, eat the flaxseed yourself and get better results!

Consider this - if fish oils really were the best source of EFAs then vegetarians would come bottom of the intelligence stakes. In fact the opposite seems to be true. In 2006, a team of veggies won the BBC's Test the Nation IQ battle. The butchers came joint fourth - there was not a team of fishmongers!

The British Medical Journal provided more weighty evidence showing that intelligent children are more likely to become vegetarians. People who were vegetarians by the age of 30 had an IQ five points higher than average when they were 10.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people with a higher IQ tend to be healthier and vegetarians generally suffer less heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, various cancers, diverticular disease, bowel disorders, gallstones, kidney stones and osteoporosis.

If not eating fish was a serious threat to brain development, vegetarians would generally fail at school, university and work. They don't!


September 2008

Vital veggies for kids, Yoga & Health

Recipes and advice on how to get kids to eat more veg!


July 2008

Veggie health for kids, Yoga & Health

Slimming and healthy eating advice for the whole family


June 2008

Statement from the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation (VVF) about children and vegan diets


Winter 2006

The great school dinner makeover: how to make a lunchbox as healthy and tasty as possible


September 2006

Clever capsules may spell disaster for kids...


April 2006

Health charity rejects claims that ditching milk 'stunts infant growth'


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Vegan and Vegetarian Phone help 0117 970 5190 Vegan and Vegetarian Website - resources for bringing up a child on a healthy Vegetarian or Vegan diet www.vegetarian.org.uk Vegan and Vegetarian Email help info@vegetarian.org.uk
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