Your Health

Vegetarian Diet for Kids: A Healthy Choice?

IMAGE Perhaps you follow a vegetarian diet and encourage your children to do so as well. Or perhaps your toddler is a fastidious eater and prefers only veggies and fruits at mealtime. Maybe you have an environmentally conscious teen who decides against eating animals. Whatever the case may be, as a parent, you want to make sure your child is getting all the nutrients she needs to grow up healthy and strong. Can a vegetarian diet provide this?

What Does It Mean to Be Vegetarian?

Being vegetarian does not mean only eating carrot sticks and apple slices. There are different kinds of vegetarian diets. Here are some of the major types:

Type of Diet Includes
Ovo-vegetarian Eggs, plants (vegetables, fruits, soy)
Lacto-vegetarian Dairy, plants
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian Dairy, eggs, plants
Vegan Only plants

Regardless of the type, a vegetarian diet can be healthy for children. As long as nutrition requirements are met , children on a meat-free diet grow up just as healthy as nonvegetarian children.

Essential Nutrients

The more flexible the diet, the more options there are for your child to get all the vitamins and minerals she needs. Here are just some that should be a part of your child’s diet:

Vitamin or Mineral Where Can I Get It?
Calcium
  • Dairy products (eg, milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables (eg, spinach)
  • Broccoli
  • Dried beans
  • Calcium-fortified products (eg, orange juice, soy and rice drinks, cereals)
Iron
  • Eggs
  • Dried beans
  • Dried fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Leafy, green vegetables
  • Iron-fortified cereals and bread
Protein
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Tofu and other soy products
  • Dried beans
  • Nuts
Vitamin B12
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Vitamin-fortified products (eg, cereals, breads, soy and rice drinks)
  • Nutritional yeast
Vitamin D
  • Vitamin D-fortified products (eg, milk and orange juice)
  • Sunshine
Zinc
  • Wheat germ
  • Nuts
  • Fortified cereal
  • Dried beans
  • Pumpkin seeds

Be sure to talk with your child’s doctor or dietician if your child is vegan. Given the limited food groups in a vegan diet, he may need to take supplements to meet nutrient needs.

Specific Needs for...

Infants

The breast milk of vegetarian mothers is just as nutritious as that of nonvegetarians. It has many of the nutrients that a baby needs, especially from age 0-6 months. Although the time to wean a baby off breast milk can vary, since breast milk is rich in nutrients, vegan mothers may wish to breastfeed for more than one year.

While nursing, make sure that you are consuming a good supply of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12, as well as other nutrients, are important for your baby and is passed on through breast milk. If you are nursing your baby and are not getting enough vitamin B12 in your own diet, talk to your child’s pediatrician about vitamin supplements. Also, breastfed infants, regardless of diet type, may need to take vitamin D supplements until they are ready to drink milk fortified with vitamin D, usually after they are older than one year.

When choosing a formula for your baby (soy formula for vegan babies), choose one that is fortified with iron. Avoid giving your baby soy milk, cow milk, or rice milk in her first year of life. These do not have adequate amounts of nutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates needed for newborns. From age one year on, your baby can have fortified soy milk or cow milk.

Once your baby is about six months old, she can start eating foods with iron, such as iron-fortified cereals. A baby that is ready for solid foods should have protein-rich foods like cottage cheese, yogurt, pureed tofu, and strained beans (chickpeas, peas, lentils) in her diet. Also, if your baby is not getting enough zinc from the foods she eats, consider giving her zinc supplements or foods fortified with zinc.

Toddlers

As children enter the toddler years, they may become finicky when it comes to what they eat. Feedings can become a challenge, but making sure they consume enough nutrients can heighten the challenge. Once breastfeeding or formula-feeding stops, children need to continue receiving nutrients that breast milk and formula once provided. Getting enough calories from foods is also important for growing children. Your toddler should eat fortified cereals and foods packed with nutrients. She may also need to take vitamins if she cannot fulfill her nutrient requirements from meals and snacks.

Teenagers

Going vegetarian can be beneficial for teenagers, since they may eat more of the nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables, that are often lacking in a teen’s meal choices. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is ideal for growing teens to ensure that they are getting enough protein, iron, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, and calcium.

Being involved in your child’s meal planning at this stage in life is a good way to encourage healthy eating, as well recognize questionable behavior. The teen years are a time when identity and self-image begin to form. Stay alert as to whether your teen’s food choices or eating patterns are very restrictive (avoiding calories, carbohydrates, and fats). If your teen is avoiding certain foods, this may be a sign of an eating disorder.

Also, teach your children that a healthy vegetarian diet should be balanced and nutritious. A vending machine approach—potato chips and a soda—is not a healthy vegetarian lunch. Most school cafeterias offer vegetarian options on their lunch menus. If not, talk to your child’s school administrators to see if such options can be made available. You can also team up with your child to pack healthy lunches that she can take to school.

Eating Well

A well-planned vegetarian diet full of variety can be a healthy choice for your child. Work with the doctor or dietician when planning to make sure that all the nutrients your child needs are covered. Not only can being vegetarian provide some health benefits for your child, but it may promote healthy eating habits well into adulthood.

  • American Academy of Family Physicians

    http://familydoctor.org/

  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

    http://www.eatright.org/

  • The Vegetarian Resource Group

    http://www.vrg.org/

  • Dietitians of Canada

    http://www.dietitians.ca/

  • Ontario Association of Pediatricians

    http://www.utoronto.ca/kids

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  • American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. 2009 July;109(7). The Vegetarian Resource Group website. Available at: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/2009%5FADA%5Fposition%5Fpaper.pdf . Accessed September 4, 2012.

  • Kids Health. Vegetarianism. Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition%5Fcenter/dietary%5Fneeds/vegetarianism.html# . Reviewed October 2011. Accessed September 4, 2012.

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  • Mangels R. Vegetarian nutrition for teenagers. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. Available at: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/teennutrition.htm . Updated May 14, 2003. Accessed September 4, 2012.

  • Wolk, M. The Vegetarian Breastfeeding Mother. LEAVEN. 1997; 33(3):69. La Leche League website. Available at: http://www.lalecheleague.org/llleaderweb/lv/lvjunjul97p69.html. Accessed September 4, 2012.