Whether you are hoping to make a diet change for your family, or your child decides to stop eating meat, you might be asking yourself, are vegetarian and vegan diets beneficial and safe for kids?
Here, Alyson Lawrence, a dietitian on CHOC’s clinical nutrition and lactation services team, answers parents’ frequently asked questions about vegetarian and vegan (plant-based) diets for kids.
Are vegetarian and vegan (plant-based) diets safe for kids?
Yes. As long as a child’s diet includes the necessary nutrition like protein and vitamins, a plant-based diet — whether vegetarian or vegan — can be healthy for all ages.
Why might families want to adopt a vegetarian or vegan (plant-based) diet?
Many parents may choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for many health- or culture-related reasons, so their younger kids may grow up with a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Other kids and teens may decide to become vegetarian or vegan because of concern for the environment, animals or their own health.
Vegetarian diets have proven to provide health benefits, such as a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, to both kids and adults. Besides the health benefits, adopting a plant-based diet can benefit the environment. Meat and dairy requires more water, land and energy to produce — contributing to greenhouse gas emissions which can cause climate change.
How to follow a healthy vegetarian or vegan (plant-based) diet
For kids and families on a plant-based diet, the following guidelines can help ensure a healthy balance of nutrition for meals:
- Opt for vegetables when possible. Aim to make your plate at least half vegetables at lunch and dinner, and make sure the vegetables represent a variety of colors. Also aim to eat green leafy vegetables at least once per day.
- Utilize plant-based sources of protein. There are many plant-based meat substitutes on the market, but tofu, beans, lentils and nuts are great sources of natural protein without added ingredients.
- Include healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and olive oil.
How to meet kids’ nutritional needs with a vegetarian or vegan (plant-based) diet
A vegetarian and vegan diet can offer the necessary nutrients for kids with an extra focus on B12, calcium, zinc, Vitamin D and iron. Here are vegetarian and vegan foods that have the nutrients that kids need:
- Vitamin B12: Dairy products, eggs for vegetarian diets. Vitamin-fortified products, such as cereals, breads, milk alternatives, nutritional yeast and some supplements for both vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Vitamin D: In milk, vitamin D-fortified orange juice, fortified cereals, fortified milk substitutes, mushrooms, or in some supplements.
- Calcium: In dairy products; dark green leafy vegetables; broccoli; kale; dried beans; and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, milk alternatives, and cereals.
- Zinc: Hummus, potatoes, nuts, fortified cereal, dried beans and pumpkin seeds.
- Iron: In eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and iron-fortified cereals and bread.
Can infants be vegetarian or vegan (plant-based)?
Yes. In the first six months of life, breast milk and formula provide infants with their needed nutrients.
Breastfed infants and parents who are vegan may need B12 supplements. Vitamin D recommendations for infants are the same whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian. For vegetarian infants who are formula fed, a standard infant formula is appropriate. Vegan parents of infants who are formula fed may choose a soy-based formula.
Guidelines for solid foods also remain the same for vegetarian and non-vegetarian infants. Breastfed infants should get iron from foods, such as iron-fortified cereals, as breast milk is low in iron.
Vegetarian infants can get their needed protein from protein-rich solid foods like pureed tofu, cottage cheese, yogurt or non-dairy yogurt (if vegan), and pureed legumes like beans, split peas, chickpeas and lentils.
Can toddlers be vegetarian or vegan (plant-based)?
Yes, but because most toddlers are picky eaters, a vegetarian or vegan can be challenging for parents. As your child comes off breast milk or formula, make sure you’re offering them iron-rich foods like iron-fortified cereals.
Because fruits and vegetables have so much fiber, it’s possible that your vegetarian toddler will feel full before getting the calories and nutrients they need. Utilize snack time as an opportunity to boost nutrition by offering healthy, protein-rich snacks like yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus, almonds or energy bites.
Can kids and teens be vegetarian or vegan (plant-based)?
Yes. Older kids and teens may express their independence through their food choices, like choosing not to eat meat. If your child chooses to become a vegetarian or vegan out of concern for animals, the environment, or their health, make sure to communicate openly with them about their choice. You may choose to respect their decision and work with them to make sure they have a well-balanced diet.
With some planning, a vegetarian diet can be good for kids and teens. It does encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables, which most kids don’t get enough of! Make sure to help you help your child include foods from all food groups to ensure well-balanced nutrition.
Eating vegetarian or vegan (plant-based) meals as a family
If your child decides to be vegetarian, consider making a fully vegetarian meal for the whole family at least once a week. It can help your child learn about nutrient-rich vegetarian foods, while also allowing the whole family to have a healthy and usually cost-effective meal.
Make sure your child is eating foods rich in the nutrients mentioned like iron, calcium, and vitamins D and B12. If you are concerned that your child isn’t getting enough of these nutrients, talk to your doctor about possible vitamins and supplements they can take.
For kids of any age, check in with your doctor with any questions about vegetarian diets.
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At CHOC, we specialize in providing a full continuum of pediatric nutrition services, including inpatient and outpatient services, depending on our patients’ needs.