More and more modern families choose to eat fewer animal products, whether for environmental, health or ethical reasons.
But are vegetarian and vegan diets healthy for children?
In general, the more restricted is the diet, the harder it is for kids to get all the nutrition they need. Children need a big variety of food in order to get the nutrition they need to grow and develop.
The good news is that the leading nutrition organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the British Dietetic Association, agreed that vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy and appropriate for kids if parents do the homework and carefully balance their eating and supplement intake.
But this tricky balance may be harder to maintain if your child is a picky eater or is vegan, i.e. avoiding all animal products. That’s why many experts argue that there is not enough data to show that strict vegan diets are a healthy option for growing bodies.
I hope that this article will give you enough guidance to take some initial steps to ensure your little one gets enough nutrition. In addition, I would encourage you to always seek nutritional guidance from a registered dietitian, especially if your child is very young and has very specific nutritional needs.
So, let’s start.
Nutrients of concern for vegetarian and vegan children
Depending on which type of vegetarian the child is, their diet may be more restricted.
For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy, are in a better position to get enough nutrition easily. But if a child is vegan, i.e avoids all animal products, it may be very difficult to ensure they get a well-rounded diet.
One of the reasons for it is that strict vegan diets are typically high in fiber and low in fat. At the same time, babies and toddlers have very small stomachs and it is very easy to fill them up before they get the nutrition they need.
If a child avoids all animal products, calcium, iodine, iron, zinc, fat and protein need to come from different plant sources. Fortified soy milk and other soy products, greens, olive oil and other plant oils, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses need to be on the menu daily in order to close the potential nutritional gaps.
From my professional experience, I can say that oils and fat are rarely on parents’ minds when they start solids with their babies. But if you are raising a vegan baby, it is virtually impossible for them to get enough calories from solids that are naturally low in fat like fruit, vegetables and grans.
Although research shows that vegetarian and vegan children get enough protein, some experts argue that the type of protein found in plants is of a different quality than animal protein and children may need to eat more of it to get all the amino acids they need for growth.
Once the child is weaned from breast or bottle, it is time to introduce full-fat milk, or, for a vegan toddler, an adequate dairy alternative. And this is another underwater stone because many plant beverages are not nutritious enough and some organic options are not fortified with calcium or vitamin D.
Many of you have heard about Vitamin B12, of course, which is only found in animal products and needs to be supplemented separately.
Next, zinc and iron may also need to be supplemented, unless the family pays special attention to the plant sources of these nutrients and chooses fortified products more often.
Vitamin D can also be a problem for vegan children since they cannot obtain it from dairy, so it is best to discuss supplementation with your doctor or dietitian or make sure your child meets her needs by drinking enough fortified soy milk. By the way, most omnivore children also need a routine vitamin D supplement.
Iodine is plentiful in dairy and seafood, so most omnivores do not need to worry about this nutrient. But vegans may find it very challenging to meet their iodine needs. The good news is that some plant milk alternatives may be fortified with iodine, so make sure to check your options on the supermarket shelves.
Iodine requirements for kids:
- 1 to 8 years old: 90 micrograms
- 9 to 13 years old: 120 micrograms
- 14 years and older: 150 micrograms
To learn more about the effects of iodine on health and its best food sources, check this article.
And finally, although vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, children need enough Omega 3 fatty acids for eye health, brain and nervous system development. Unfortunately, the plant form of Omega 3, ALA, needs an additional conversion step in order to be used by the body. So if your child does not eat any fish, it is crucial to serve enough nuts and seeds and their oils, or, alternatively, get a good DHA supplement.
Another potential complication to keep in mind is the association between vegetarianism and a potentially higher risk of eating disorders in teens. If you notice sudden changes in your child’s eating, including extreme restrictions and periods of compulsive overeating, seek help for them immediately.
To conclude, it is probably possible to balance your child’s diet in a way that they get enough nutrition even when they have to avoid all animal products. But the smaller is the child, the more challenging it is to follow a restricted diet and meet all the nutritional needs.
Babies and toddlers have tiny tummies, finicky appetites and need a lot of nutrition and calories in every bite. Regardless of your child’s age, make sure to do your research, or, even better, talk to a dietitian before restricting your child’s diet in any way.