Q. I’m the mother of an active 2-year-old girl, and we are vegetarians. How much protein does my daughter need to stay strong and healthy as she grows?
A. Vegetarian diets for children are sometimes met with skepticism. But, in fact, children who eat well-balanced vegetarian diets grow and develop normally—and thrive. You are doing a great service to your child, because a vegetarian diet comes with many lifelong health benefits, including a lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon cancer.
Protein from animal sources (e.g., eggs and dairy products) contain all of the essential amino acids (protein building blocks) and are thus considered complete proteins. Proteins from plant foods lack one or more of the amino acids. Children who eat a variety of foods will likely get the entire range of amino acids the body needs throughout the day. For example, if your daughter consumes a grain (bread, cereal, crackers, rice, pasta) along with a dairy product, nut butter, legume, soy milk, or beans, then she will be getting all of the necessary amino acids.
It’s not difficult for a child on a vegetarian diet to get enough protein. For example, one slice of whole-wheat bread (2.5 grams protein) spread with 1 tablespoon peanut butter (4 grams protein), and washed down with 1/2 cup of soy milk (5 grams protein) supplies nearly enough protein for one day. If your daughter regularly eats enough calories and consumes a variety of foods, she’s very likely getting the 13 grams of daily protein she needs now (and quite possibly the 19 grams she’ll need from ages 4 through 8). Good sources of protein include dairy products, eggs, tofu, soy milk, beans, lentils, quinoa, and nut butters.
This Q&A was written by Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, author of The Green Tea Book (Avery, 1998).