Meat or vegetarian?
Some parents are on the fence about whether or not they want their kids to eat meat, and ask for my opinion, so here goes. This can be a sensitive issue for some families, so the most important thing for you to know is that I will support you in either choice! My priority is simply to make sure your children are getting the best nutrition whichever lifestyle you choose.
When trying to figure out the most natural way to raise a child, I tend to look towards how humans lived before we introduced agriculture and industry, before we experienced an epidemic of diet-related diseases. We know that our ancestors lived as small tribes in the wild, foraging and hunting. Despite popular belief, we were unlikely to be brutal cavemen gnawing on meaty drumsticks, men bonking women on the head with clubs, etc. In fact, our society was a rather egalitarian one that relied primarily on foraged vegetables. The proportion of meat intake varied, and was less reliable. As a best guess, the average meat intake of humans living in the wild seems to have been around 40% of total calories, but varied depending on location.
So while we were predominantly vegetable-eaters, meat was certainly a part of our diet. However, the meat consumed was quite different from that available today — wild foraging animals were significantly healthier than our current farmed animals, and in fact the nutritional properties were more similar to fish than what we commonly think of as "meat". Somewhere along the line we started abusing animals, caging them and over-feeding them unnatural diets and fattening them with pharmaceuticals. We stopped eating the whole animal, limiting ourselves to just the muscle meat, and began eating unhealthy amounts of it, along with fewer and fewer vegetables. Not surprisingly, eating this typical "meat"-based diet has been shown to be less healthy than a vegetarian alternative. We do not yet have a study comparing a healthy omnivorous diet (with lots of vegetables and limited, healthy meats) to an otherwise equivalent vegetarian one. I personally believe that eating a healthfully sourced and balanced diet is more important than whether or not it contains meat — whatever path to finding that nutritious balance gets you there, that's the one for you. Later on in this page I'll share some dietary pitfalls that both meat-eaters and vegetarians fall into, and if you avoid these your kids will do just fine!
What about the environment? As someone deeply concerned with preserving our natural habitat, this is an important topic for me. I commonly hear people say that consuming "meat" is bad for the environment. Like my thoughts above, this is also no surprise. Raising animals in an unnatural way is no better for the environment than it is for us. But destroying habitat to put in a massive field of soybeans doesn't help, either. Wild animals, like wild vegetables, are a necessary part of the ecosystem, and maintain balance. Farming anything on an industrial scale can harm the environment. Like the nutritional effects, the environmental impact may be more closely tied to how our consumption is sourced than whether or not meat is part of it. Choose small, local, sustainable farms that care about and protect their local ecosystems.
How to stay healthy as an omnivore:
Meat can be an incredibly nutritious part of a wholesome diet, and in absence of philosophical objection, I do recommend incorporating it naturally into children's diets. It is a great way of meeting iron needs, healthy fats, and keeping carbohydrate intake balanced. To make sure your kids are healthy omnivores, though, watch out for these common omnivorous pitfalls:
Avoid conventional farm-raised animals when possible, even when advertised as "natural" they usually aren't. The more wild the animal's lifestyle, the more natural and healthy it will be. Look for "pasture-raised," "grass-fed", etc. Know your farmer and learn how they raise their animals. Places like Pine Mountain Ranch are great options, you can find them at the PSU farmer's market, ask them about their practices yourself, or read about it on their website!
Try enjoying the whole rather than just the parts. Learn ways to enjoy more than just the isolated muscle meats like chicken breast and steak. We often assume kids won't like something before they even try it, and in doing so, basically train them not to like things that are different.
Focus on balance. While wholesome meats are good for you, they really need to be balanced with a diet rich in equally wholesome, fibrous vegetables. If you put all the food you eat in one day on one giant plate, how close to 60% of the calories are whole vegetables and fruits? How much is made up of grains, dairy, packaged foods, sweets?
How to stay healthy as a vegetarian or vegan:
Being vegetarian or vegan can also be incredibly healthy, it just involves a bit more planning. Follow these steps and you'll do fine!
Watch the phytate levels. This is a naturally-occurring compound sometimes referred to as an "anti-nutrient" because it prevents absorption of important minerals like iron. This is one of the reasons vegetarians commonly get anemic. Phytate is found in high levels in soy, grains, beans, peanuts, potatoes and nuts. You don't need to eliminate phytate, it has healthful qualities too, just don't overdo it. Soaking and cooking reduces phytate levels. Also, some legumes are better than others — peas, lentils and chickpeas have lower levels than soy or peanuts.
Whoa there, dairy. Too much dairy also prevents iron absorption and has several other health consequences, like constipation and weight gain.
Balance the carbs. Vegetarians can often get too many carbohydrates when they simply swap meat (zero carbs) with plants that contain carbs. To compensate for this effect, reduce carbohydrate consumption elsewhere, and try to always consume whole foods instead of refined grains and simple starches/sugars.
Get the right fats. Many vegetable and seed oils are high in Omega-6 fats, which are starting to be thought of like the opposite of Omega-3. Primitive cultures had much higher Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratios then we have today. While both are necessary, the balance or ratio here may be key. When selecting oils, pick oils low in omega-6, and high in omega-3. Monounsaturated oils (omega 9) are also good for you. A mixture of using olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, grass-fed butter are all good choices.
So where to get some protein? Protein is found in everything, including a variety of vegetables. Protein deficiency in vegetarians is uncommon, and less of an issue than the other concerns noted above. With that said, do try to get a wholesome variety of plants, and try not to rely on a singular protein source, like tofu. Eat a variety of nuts, seeds and legumes (selecting those lowest in phytate as noted above). Try some quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, almonds, etc. If you eat eggs, that's a great source, too.
What supplements are good for vegetarians? While I'm not generally a huge supplement fan, it is good idea for vegetarians and vegans. Daily RDA of vitamin D, iron, folate, B12, and fish or flax oil are all good options.
In conclusion, I hope to remove some of the social stigma around the concept of either eating meat or not eating meat. The way I think of it, it’s being out of balance with your nutrition, just like within an ecosystem, that causes problems — a forest overrun by deer (vegetarian) can be as bad off as a forest overrun by foxes (omnivore) and vice versa. Your children can be little deer or little foxes, what matters most is that they learn to treat the land they walk on with respect and find balance within their lifestyle. If they do, the food they eat will keep them healthy, and their impact on this earth can remain a positive one.
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