Vegan and Vegetarian Diets for Kids

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Vegans are a type of strict vegetarian who exclude meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other animal products from their diet. The average parent who is an omnivore (a person who eats all food groups) often cringes when their child decides to become a vegan or other type of vegetarian.

They may even want their pediatrician to talk their child out of it. Will their child get enough vitamins and calories being a vegan? Don't kids have to eat meat to get enough protein and iron in their diet?

Fortunately, since your pediatrician would likely have a hard time talking your teen out of these types of diet plans even if they tried, a vegetarian diet can be healthy for most kids.

Health Benefits of Vegan Diets

Although not for everybody, a vegan diet does indeed have many health benefits, and if well planned, can be a healthy diet for kids. Parents, especially if they are vegans, can also feel reassured that they can raise their kids to be vegans too.

One shouldn't go overboard when talking about possible health benefits of being a vegan, though. For example, it's important to understand that evidence doesn't suggest that kids raised on a vegan diet are sick less often than other kids.

Also, non-vegan foods are not necessarily full of toxins and pesticides. And not all vegetarian foods are healthy—some are high in sugar, saturated fat, and/or cholesterol.

Benefits of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

The foods in a vegan diet are typically low in cholesterol and saturated fats and high in fiber (all characteristics of a healthy diet).

Research shows that vegan diets may lead to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes. In addition, vegetarians typically have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegetarians.

These health benefits led Dr. Benjamin Spock, back in 1998, to recommend a strict vegan diet for all children over the age of 2 years.

The last edition of his iconic parenting book, "Baby and Child Care," published shortly after he died, advised that children shouldn't be given dairy products after the age of two. He stated that children "can get plenty of protein and iron from vegetables, beans, and other plant foods that avoid the fat and cholesterol that are in animal products."

Dr. Spock's proposal created a lot of controversies, but not because experts disputed the health benefits of a vegan diet. Rather, they thought that parents might not take enough time and effort to plan a vegan diet that included enough calories, minerals, and nutrients to ensure optimal growth in their children.

They likely thought that children would have a hard time following the diet too, especially when you consider that most parents already have difficulty getting kids to eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Only about 5% of people are vegetarians and only half of those people are vegan. And the great majority of vegans and vegetarians, 70 to 86% respectively, eventually backslide and return to eating meat.

Concerns about Vegan Diets

Since many kids are already picky eaters, restricting their choices even further can make it more difficult to meet nutritional needs with a vegan diet. This is especially true for infants and toddlers. There are some areas that you should pay special attention to if your child is on a vegan diet.

Calories

Vegan diets may have fewer calories than diets that include meat and dairy products. That could be a benefit or the average child, however, with the currently high rates of child obesity.

Although it isn't necessary to count calories, you should ensure that your child is receiving enough calories for optimal growth. In general, if your child is eating a well-balanced and varied vegan diet, is gaining weight, developing normally, and is active, they are probably getting enough calories.

Protein

You can make sure that your child gets enough protein and amino acids by eating a good balance of whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, and soy products.

Omega-3 Fats

These are essential fats that our bodies cannot make, so we must get them from our diet. One good source is fish oil. You can also find omega-3's in foods such as fortified soy milk, flaxseed, dark green leafy vegetables, and walnuts.

Calcium

Eating a diet with foods rich in calcium to meet daily requirements is necessary for the development of strong bones. It is also an important way to prevent the development of osteoporosis in adults.

Many vegetables contain calcium, especially broccoli, sweet potatoes, great northern and navy beans, and leafy greens. You can also give your child soy milk or orange juice that is fortified with extra calcium.

Folate

Vegetarians don't often consider folate as a nutritional concern because green leafy vegetables are a good source. However, folate deficiency can hide the signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency. Folate is found in many fortified foods, including orange juice, breads, cereal, and pasta.

Iodine

Natural sources of iodine include seafood, shellfish, and seaweed, but most people get their iodine from iodized table salt. Other food sources include those that are directly fortified with iodine or that involved the use of iodized animal feed (meats and dairy products).

Although vegetarians won't get iodine directly from seafood and some other fortified foods, as long as they don't also switch to non-iodized salt (including most brands of sea salt and Kosher salt), iodine should not be a problem.

Iron

Most parents recognize that meat is a good source of iron. How else can kids get iron in their diet? In addition to iron-fortified foods and supplements, vegetarians can get iron from beans, greens, tofu, vegetables, dried fruits, and other iron-rich foods.

Keep in mind that it is harder for the body to absorb the iron found in fruits, vegetables, and grains, than that found in red meats, poultry, and fish. However, eating vitamin C-rich foods along with iron-rich foods increases the body's absorption of iron.

For example, spaghetti sauce with ground beef provides both iron from the beef and vitamin C from the tomato sauce. Iron-fortified cereal and a glass of orange juice also provides both nutrients.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is only found in animal products, so your child will need supplements or foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin). These include fortified soy milk, fortified cereal, and some meat substitutes (read the nutrition label). Nutritional yeast is another way to get extra vitamin B12 in your vegan child's diet.

Vitamin D

This vitamin is present in fortified milk, egg yolks, and fish. Your body also makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but that isn't a reliable source, as kids should be using sunscreen that blocks this process.

Zinc

Your child may need to take supplements or eat foods fortified with zinc to get enough of this important mineral since the best sources of zinc are meat and yogurt. Zinc is also found in whole grains, brown rice, legumes, and spinach.

Other Types of Vegetarian Diets

In addition to becoming vegan, kids sometimes try other types of vegetarian diets, including:

  • Lacto-vegetarianism: includes dairy products
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: includes eggs, dairy products, and honey
  • Ovo-vegetarianism: includes eggs
  • Semi-vegetarianism: includes occasional animal products

The fewer foods you restrict, the easier it will be to follow and plan your child's vegetarian diet.

What to Know About Raising a Vegetarian

There are some other things to know about raising a vegetarian child. For instance, not all substitutes for cow's milk are fortified with vitamin B12.

Becoming a vegetarian doesn't mean that you have to eat organic foods. The AAP states that "No direct evidence of a clinically relevant nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce exists.

The AAP does not generally recommend using soy-based formulas instead of cow's milk-based formulas. If you do not breastfeed, or stop breastfeeding before introducing solid foods, discuss your options with your doctor.

Like adults, teens may become vegetarian for health, moral, or religious reasons. Some teens become vegetarian impulsively, though, and some do it to hide an eating disorder.

There are fortified foods available at most grocery stores that make it easier to raise a vegetarian child than when Dr. Spock first made his recommendation. A registered dietitian can help you plan your child's diet. This is an especially good idea if you are raising a vegetarian infant or toddler.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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