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Q&A:
Is a vegetarian diet nutritious enough for a baby?

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Question


I have a 9 1/2-month-old, and I am vegetarian (ovo-lacto). How important is it to feed high-protein food to a baby this age, and how often is it needed? There are some days I may make just pasta with not much protein in it. Is that adequate for my child, since he is still drinking lots of formula? Also, how do you rate lentils and beans as everyday sources of protein for a child?

Answer


Vegetarian diets can be perfectly nutritious for children if they aren't severely restrictive. (Examples of overly restrictive ones include the vegan diet, which allows no animal protein or dairy products like milk and eggs, and the"fruitarian" diet, which allows only fruits, seeds, nuts, and grains.) A fringe benefit of your ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet, which permits milk and eggs, is that it can be high in fiber, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and rich in nutrients.

The concern is not that your child would receive too little protein but that the protein he receives could be incomplete without some animal components. Twenty amino acids, the main components of protein, are the building blocks of the body, and nine of them are "essential" — meaning we can't manufacture them ourselves from other dietary sources. Milk and eggs can provide these essential acids, as can legumes such as beans and lentils when served in combination with rice.

Nuts, especially peanut butter and other nut butters, are a good source of protein, too. Of course, your 9 1/2-month-old is not ready for nuts or nut butters yet, but next year you can certainly give him a thin coating of smooth peanut butter on bread or crackers. Whole nuts and chunky peanut butter should not be given to children until age 4, when they have the molars to grind them adequately. Soy protein such as tofu is another good source of amino acids, close to that of animal sources.

Serving pasta as the meal's main course shouldn't concern you. The grains from which pasta are made contain some protein, and you will probably have side dishes as well as something on the pasta to give it flavor. Surely pasta is not the only thing that passes your child's lips that day or even that week. It all adds up. Remember that nutrition is a long-range issue, not a day-to-day or meal-by-meal one.  
 
 
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