Vegetarian diets have been shown to be safe for children; however, it is important for parents to ensure there is adequate nutrition in their children’s diet that allows for normal growth and development. This can be achieved by being conscious of food choices and their nutritional values.
Here are nutritional factors parents should keep in mind when raising children on a vegetarian diet:
- Energy – Children have smaller stomachs than adults, so vegetarian diets must have enough energy content in each serving to fulfill their needs. Three meals and three snacks per day are recommended to sustain energy levels. It is also important to remember that healthy fats are a good source of energy and should not be restricted in children younger than two years old. Nuts, seeds (or nut/seed butters) and avocados are examples of fatty, high energy/high nutrient foods children can eat.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Vegetarian diets generally contain a lot of omega-6 fatty acids but marginal amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which are important for brain, eye and nerve development. Foods like flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy should be included in vegetarian diets to ensure adequate intake of omega-3s.
- Protein – Plant-based protein can be difficult for children to digest. Therefore their intake of protein needs to be increased to meet their daily requirement. It is important to add foods such as milk or eggs, soybean products (e.g. tofu and soy milk) and other protein-rich foods to their diets. Foods such as legumes, nuts and seeds, grains, cereals, potatoes, and pasta also contribute to protein intake but to a lesser degree.
- Iron – Heme (meat) iron is better absorbed than is non-heme (plant) iron, and children who consume only non-heme iron are at risk of iron deficiency. Vitamin C should be included in each meal to help iron absorption. Iron can be obtained by eating green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals or whole grains.
- Calcium – Milk and other dairy products provide approximately 75 percent of the calcium in the average American diet. Calcium daily intake should be “700 mg for children one to three years, 1000 mg if they are four to eight years, and 1300 mg if they are nine years and older”. Calcium can be obtained in fortified milk products such as dairy, almond or oat milk.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D intake of 600 IU/day is necessary for adequate calcium balance. This is usually found in animal milk as well as soy milk or breakfast cereal fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D supplementation should be used for vegetarian children who don’t have access to enriched foods or that live in places without adequate sunlight.
- Vitamin B12 – Only animal products have vitamin B12 so vegetarian children should consume either fortified foods (soy milk or cereals) or an oral vitamin B12 supplement.
If you are considering a vegetarian diet for your child and have any questions, please consult your doctor.
To schedule an appointment with a Family Medicine doctor at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, please call 718-206-6942
All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.