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Vegetarianism and Your Growing Child

Author: CHKD Medical Group, Dr. Windy Mason-Leslie
Published Date: Monday, March 22, 2021

By Dr. Windy Mason-Leslie, Pediatric Associates

Vegetarianism is a choice many families and children are making for several reasons but, while it has many benefits, it could be detrimental to your child’s health without proper planning.

What is vegetarianism?

When discussing vegetarianism, it is important to note that not all vegetarian diets are alike. Some of the main vegetarian categories include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats no meat, poultry, or fish, but eats eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: eats no meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but eats dairy products.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: eats no meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but eats eggs.
  • Vegan: eats only plant-derived foods.

There are also semi-vegetarians who don’t eat red meat but still eat poultry or fish.

What does my child need to healthily adopt a vegetarian diet?

Calories

When adopting a plant-based diet, it’s important to be sure your child is getting enough calories to grow and support daily activities. Since plant-derived foods tend to have fewer calories than animal-based choices, this can be a challenge.

The number of calories your child needs will depend on their age, size, and activity level. Nuts, nut butters, soy products, granola, and whole-grain foods can help add calories.

Protein

Just like calories, protein is easier to get from animal products than from plant-based foods. Protein isn’t just important in building muscle, but for many other body processes. Protein also provides the amino acid building blocks we need. For a developing child, protein is also essential to your child reaching their full height potential.

To be on the safe side, people eating a vegetarian diet should eat more protein than those on animal-based diets. The amount of protein needed depends on each individual’s age and size. Nuts, legumes, soy products, and whole grains are great sources of protein.

Calcium

Calcium promotes good bone health and nerve and muscle function, making it an important part of your child’s diet. It typically comes from dairy, but foods like kale, bok choy, and broccoli are also great ways to obtain calcium. Some soy and almond milks can also be fortified with calcium, as well as some orange juice brands.

Iron

Iron helps keep our blood and body healthy and strong. Fortified cereals and some plant products like leafy greens and some dried fruits have iron, but a multivitamin with iron can do the trick as well.

Vitamin B12

B12 deficiency is most commonly found in vegan children since it is a vitamin that is naturally found only in animal products. While fortified cereals and soy drinks can provide vitamin B12, this is another nutrient you can get from a multivitamin. For children who aren’t vegan, vitamin B12 is also found in eggs and dairy.

Vitamin D

The sunshine vitamin is one that people on any diet can benefit from. While the main source comes from the sun, most of us don’t get enough sunshine and need to add it to our diet. If your child won’t be consuming fortified dairy products, then a supplement is necessary.

For younger children, the 400 IU present in most multivitamins will be enough, while older children may need more. Make sure to speak with their pediatrician to find out what is best for your child.

Fiber

Plants have a ton of fiber and those on a plant-based diet may actually get too much of it. The issue with too much fiber is that it can fill you up, making it harder to get enough calories and other nutrients.

Give your child some refined grains, like cereals, as well as peeled fruits and cooked vegetables rather than raw.

Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral for immune function, growth, and many biochemical reactions. Foods like legumes, dairy, whole grain products, wheat germ, cereals, nuts, and tofu can give your child the zinc they need.


What are the risks?

If your child’s nutritional needs aren’t being met, mood swings or energy changes may be signaling a problem. When trying to maintain a healthy plant-based diet in young infants, getting it wrong can cause irreversible cognitive damage or even death. Young children or infants, when not getting enough calories, protein, or fat, can also experience Failure To Thrive or fail to progress on weight and height growth charts.

There are also emotional aspects for children when it comes to plant-based diets. With so many children and teens being concerned about the environmental impacts of eating meat, it’s important to understand why your child wants to adopt vegetarianism. You can support their dietary decision by having the whole family eat a vegetarian meal every once in a while.

On the other hand, children whose families are vegetarian may feel isolated from their peers. If it is important to your family that your child stick to a plant-based diet, make sure your child has food to eat in every setting and give them the knowledge they need to discuss their dietary choices with their peers.

What are the benefits?

Vegetarians can meet all of their body’s needs for nutrients, at any stage of life, with careful planning.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables will be high in fiber and low in fat, which reduces blood cholesterol and helps to maintain a healthy weight, improving cardiovascular health. Additionally, people who adopt vegetarianism as a diet lower their risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. Vegetarians also have lower rates of some cancers.

Overall, a plant-based diet can be safe for children. However, children and infants should be closely monitored to ensure they are receiving proper nutrition, are growing and developing normally, and have the energy to just be a kid.

As a parent, you should fully understand what your child needs to healthily adopt vegetarianism, whether it is their choice or yours. Before your child starts a plant-based diet, consult their pediatrician.



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About CHKD Medical Group

About CHKD Medical  Group Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters has been the region’s most trusted name in pediatric care for more than 50 years. As members of CHKD Health System, our pediatricians work closely with CHKD’s full range of pediatric specialists and surgeons. They also share a commitment to quality, excellence and child-centered care. With 18 practices in 29 locations throughout the region, a CHKD pediatrician is never far.