Vegetarian Diets for Children
Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
They are associated with lower levels of:
- Heart Disease
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
Lacto vegetarians have more health benefits and less health risks than vegetarians who follow a vegan diet (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
*Flexitarians may eat fish in their diet.
Risks of a Vegetarian Diet
Although a vegetarian diet can meet the nutritional requirements for children, there are more risks for inadequate nutrition from this type of diet during periods of growth. It is important to make sure the diet includes appropriate amounts of energy, protein, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and dietary fiber (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
Healthy People 2020 aims to “reduce the proportion of children and adolescents who are considered obese” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019).
Additional Resources for Families
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2019). Vegetarian diets for children. In HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/nutrition/Pages/Vegetartian-Diet-for-Children.aspx
Burns, C.E., Dunn, A.M., Brady, M.A., Starr, N.B., Blosser, C.G., & Garson, D.L. (2017). Pediatric primary care (6th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
Demory-Luce, D., & Motil, K. J. (2019). Vegetarian diets for children. In J. E. Drutz, A. B. Middleman, & A. G. Hoppin (Eds.), UpToDate. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/vegetarian-diets-for-children?search=pediatric%20vegetarian&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~65&usage_type=default&display_rank=1#H21
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Nutrition and weight status. In Healthy People 2020. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/nutrition-and-weight-status/objectives#4928
*Stock images used from www.shutterstock.com and www.dreamstime.com
Vegetarian Diets for Children
There are different types of vegetarian diets:
- Flexitarians eat plant-based foods, and occasionally, will also eat fish, chicken, and seafood. They avoid or limit the amount of red meat in their diets.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs, milk and dairy products, and plant-based foods.
Lacto vegetarians eat plant-based foods and milk and dairy products.
- Vegans are strict vegetarians and avoid all animal products in their diet (e.g. eggs, milk and dairy products, meat). They eat only foods of plant origin.
(Burns et al., 2017)
Elements of a Well-Balanced Vegetarian Diet
Children should eat frequent meals and snacks that contain energy and nutrient-dense foods. These include cooked legumes, whole grain breads, enriched cereals, nuts, nut spread, nut-like seeds, avocados, and dried fruits (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
It is important to combine different plants with different proteins to ensure adequate protein intake. These combinations include legumes and grains, nuts, or seeds. Examples are peanut butter on wheat bread, beans/lentils & rice, lentils & sunflower seeds, peas & rye on wheat, tofu & almonds (Burns et al., 2017).
Children eating a vegetarian diet need more iron than those eating a non-vegetarian diet. Sources of iron include whole/enriched breads/grains, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, and soy products. Iron absorption can be increased through eating fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C such as citrus, strawberries, broccoli, and tomatoes (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
Sources of zinc include milk & dairy products, cereals, whole grains, legumes, wheat germ, and nuts (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
Most children meet the calcium recommendation through milk & dairy products. Other sources include calcium-fortified foods, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, bok choy, dried figs, blackstrap molasses, and lime-processed tortillas. (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
Milk fortified with vitamin D can be the primary source of vitamin D. Other sources include salmon, sardines, tuna, fortified cereals, margarine, sunlight (20-30min/day for 2-3 times/week) (Burns et al., 2017).
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products. Other sources include fortified soy milk, soy-based meat substitutes, nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, and vitamin supplements (Burns et al., 2017).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If the vegetarian diet does not include oily fish, children should include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy in their diets (Demory-Luce & Motil, 2019).
It may be difficult for children to achieve a balanced diet if milk & dairy products and eggs are removed from the diet. Please talk to your children’s pediatrician about using vitamins to supplement any potential deficiencies (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019).