Nobody would argue that becoming vegetarian has certain health benefits, as well as being kinder to the environment and acknowledging animal welfare. However, for many people it is difficult to change habits of a lifetime.
The eating of meat is not only a difficult thing to give up for individuals who have eaten it all their lives, it is also something that many believe is either an important part of a balanced diet or that humans are meant to eat.
Whilst there are heated debates on both sides of the fence, most nutritionists believe that people should at least cut down on the amount of meat we eat. As such some parents believe that to raise a child as a vegetarian provides a better start in their lives.
But while western attitudes to raising a vegetarian child have softened, in countries like China meat is still seen as important and not to be excluded from the diet.
Meat of course contains many nutrients that are important. But all these nutrients, be it protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins amongst others, can all be found in plant based foods [N.B. Vitamin B12 is only found in meat, eggs and dairy products, so vegans need to take a vitamin supplement which is usually synthesized from sea vegetables such as nori].
In many western countries there is a greater understanding of food nutrition and as far as vegetarians and vegans are concerned, an even better understanding as to what foods to eat in order to maintain a balanced diet.
But in countries like China where meat is a significant part of the diet, there is more resistance to raising a child to be a vegetarian, let alone vegan.
Over the past half century China has experienced various problems concerning the feeding of its people. Questionable agricultural policies, floods, droughts and other environmental factors have all led to less food being on the table.
And while meat is considered important, it has often been rationed or been in short supply. Indeed even whilst I was growing up in the 1970s meat was often served only on special occasions such as when treating friends or during festivals.
Nowadays meat is readily available, and far cheaper than it once was. Thus meat is now commonplace during any meal. In fact one will often get curious looks if you announce you don’t eat meat or that it be omitted from certain dishes.
That is not to say that vegetables don’t play an important part in Chinese cuisine. There are countless vegetarian dishes, some of which are highly prized. But pure vegetarians are often only associated with certain religions such as Buddhism.
In some respects many Chinese look upon the eating of plant based products as being more important than westerners. Grains, including rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, cereals and beans are regarded as indispensable nutritious staple foods. Meanwhile fruits, vegetables and meat were seen as supplements, according to a highly regarded ancient text in Chinese medicine ‘The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic’ (Huangdi Neijing, 黄帝内经).
Furthermore, in promoting a balance of Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine often urges people to become vegetarian in order to preserve health and obtain longevity. And as a Chinese saying goes; “fish brings heat and meat brings phlegm, but Chinese mustard greens and tofu keep you healthy” [yúshēnghuǒ, ròushēngtán, qīngcàidòufubǎopíng'ān - 鱼生火, 肉生痰, 青菜豆腐保平安].
But with so many tasty dishes and in a culture which focuses so much on food, it is understandably difficult for many to abstain from eating meat.
However, there are a growing number of Chinese adults who are reducing their consumption of meat or even becoming vegetarian.
But the idea of a vegetarian child invokes very strong emotions. When learning that I was raising my young child as a vegetarian, nearly all of my Chinese relatives, friends or acquaintances showed surprise or expressed disapproval. Many thought it was not a good diet for a young baby. Even in England, some people have suggested that I should feed her some meat such as chicken.
Nonetheless as parents, it is our choice, and we have persevered to offer our child a healthy balance diet. While she eats some oily fish [great for those Omega-3 fatty acids] for the most part she is on a lacto-vegetarian diet and was breastfed from birth.
Sometimes I get concerned, especially when my little darling shows no appetite or becomes fussy over her food. But as health visitors, and my husband, point out all babies can have their off-days. She is however, very healthy and shows good growth, weight gain and excellent mental development.
In the long run I hope she benefits from her healthy diet, encouraged and supported not only by my husband but also by my mother back in China. Indeed, she often urges me to eat less meat or even become a vegetarian like my husband and daughter.
Even for well-educated people like myself, we can often be oblivious to the knowledge that the nutrients in meat can be obtained from other foods. But I have come to understand and accept the vegetarian lifestyle having lived in the UK for several years, and overcome pressures to make my child eat meat.
Whilst a balanced nutritious diet is all important, I also try to make her meals tasty. While fussy on occasion, conversations with other mums has revealed that their kids can be just as fussy and many often refuse to eat their veggies.
Whilst some paediatricians advocate children being brought up on a vegetarian, or even vegan [NYT], diet, others do not. Ultimately it is a parental choice.
This piece is part of a series of articles dedicated to exploring parenting expertise by looking at cultural backgrounds and the pros-and-cons of various traditions. This special series is also posted with acknowledgement to International Children's Day which is observed on the 1st June.
If you enjoyed this article please check out “Colourful Childhood: exploring cultural impacts on kids and parenthood”, “Cultural differences in potty training” and "Breastfeeding: Challenges faced by East & West".