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Is your child or teen a vegetarian? Should you worry?

Author: Mary Jo Haney, RD, CSP
Published Date: Monday, February 13, 2017

A growing number of children and teens are choosing to adopt a vegetarian diet as part of a healthy lifestyle. As a parent you may wonder whether your child is getting the nutrients she needs for healthy growth and development. The good news is a carefully planned vegetarian diet can meet the dietary recommendations for a growing child or teen. Here are some tips to help keep your vegetarian child on track.

What type of vegetarian is your child?

There are different types of vegetarians and the nutrients to focus on may differ depending on which type of vegetarian diet your child has chosen.

  • Vegan: excludes all forms of animal products
  • Lacto: excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs, but includes dairy
  • Lacto-ovo: excludes meat, poultry and fish, but includes eggs and dairy products

Food Sources that Should be Incorporated into a Vegetarian Diet

The foods listed below are not a comprehensive list but highlight prominent food sources that should be incorporated into a healthy vegetarian diet.

  • Calories and fat can be a concern on a vegetarian diet since vegetarian diets are typically low in energy and growing children and teens have higher energy needs at this time.
    Food Sources: avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, oils and salad dressings
  • Protein needs can be easily met when a variety of plant-based protein sources are included with meals and snacks throughout the day. Food Sources: soy products, such as tofu, legumes, nuts and nut butters, dairy, eggs, meat analogues and whole grains
  • Calcium is needed for strong bones, teeth, and nerve and muscle function. During the growing years calcium is very important. Fortunately there are many foods and beverages fortified with calcium.
    Food sources: soy products (soy milk, soy yogurt), dairy, calcium fortified orange juice, almond milk, rice milk, leafy greens, calcium-set tofu, chia seeds
  • Iron is an important mineral that vegetarian kids and teens are commonly deficient in compared with non-vegetarians. Iron is important for carrying oxygen in the blood.
    Food Sources: whole and enriched grains, fortified cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, and some dried fruits
  • B12 is a vitamin that is a concern specifically for vegan children because B12 is naturally found only in animal products. If your child is a vegan, make sure he or she is getting foods supplemented with B12.
    Food Sources: fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast and meat analogues, eggs and dairy
  • Zinc is an important mineral for immune function, growth, and many biochemical reactions.
    Food Sources: legumes, dairy, whole grain products, wheat germ, cereals, nuts and tofu

Meal Planning

As with any diet, variety is the key. Meals should be colorful and modeled after the MyPlate meal pattern, which includes:

  • High protein food
  • Grains
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fats
  • High Calcium food

Make sure to include a couple of snacks each day to help meet the nutrient needs for growing kids. Supporting your child in the decision to be a vegetarian and learning the proper way to follow the diet will reinforce healthy lifestyle choices in the future.

If you have any concerns about your child’s diet, discuss them with your pediatrician.

About Mary Jo Haney, RD, CSP

Mary Jo Haney, RD, CSP, is a registered dietitian certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics with a specialty in pediatrics. She received her Bachelors of Science degree at Pennsylvania State University and was an intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Mary Jo has worked at CHKD for over 20 years and is currently working in the outpatient setting helping address nutritional concerns of children and their families in the community.