My son chose, from a very young age, to be a vegetarian, just like his Dad. Over the years he’s tried various meat products such as chicken, bacon and calamari, and has enjoyed them, but he always comes back to the position that he doesn’t want to eat animals. I don’t have a problem with this. It’s well established that there are numerous health benefits to being a vegetarian (such as lower risk of death from heart disease and certain types of cancers). My son is also dairy intolerant, however he does eat eggs, so he is somewhere between a vegetarian and a vegan (the technical term is ovo-vegetarian, I think).
Childhood is a time of growth and development. Nutrients such as protein, calcium and iron are essential for the increase in mass of bone, muscle and organs. Understandably, many people are concerned about the safety of vegetarian and vegan diets for children.
In 2009 the American Dietetic Association had this to say about vegetarian diets.
‘It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescents, and for athletes.’
The important thing to note in the above statement is that vegetarian/vegan diets need to be well-planned in order to meet nutrient needs and recommendations. There are several nutrients that can be of concern in a vegetarian or vegan diet (as these nutrients are most abundant and most biologically available in animal products).
Here is a summary table of the main nutrients of concern:
|Nutrient||Nutrients role in childhood nutrition||Food sources in a vegetarian* diet||Food sources in a vegan** diet|
|Energy||Energy is required for growth, physical activity and basic metabolism. Veg diets can be a less energy dense, however considering we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic this may not be such a bad thing.||Proteins (see below), carbohydrates (breads, pastas, cereals) and fats (vegetable oils, nut and seed pastes, milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt and eggs) can all be converted to energy.||As for vegetarian (excluding milk, cheese, butter and eggs).|
|Protein||Tissue maintenance and growth of body tissue and changes in body composition.||There are 9 essential amino acids that can only be obtained from protein in the diet. Soy is the only complete plant source of these 9, however, eating a range of proteins from nuts, seeds and grains will ensure adequate intake.Milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter and eggs are also excellent sources of protein for vegetarians.||As for vegetarian (excluding milk, cheese, butter and eggs).|
|Calcium||Accumulated in large amounts in the skeleton during childhood. When dietary calcium intakes are low, the skeleton can be adversely affected.||Milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter are the major source for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Plant sources in the diet include: broccoli, almonds, kale, bok choy, tofu, cauliflower, watercress, brussel sprouts, sesame seeds, pinto beans, sweet potatoes, whole wheat bread.||As well as the plant sources listed for vegetarians, vegans may need to include calcium fortified milks and milk products (such as soy and oat milk/yoghurt/cheese) in order to meet requirements. Look for milks that has been fortified to have calcium levels similar to that of cows milk (around 120mg per 100mL).|
|Iron||Important during childhood for growth and rapidly expanding blood volume. Potential consequences of iron deficiency anaemia include delayed physical and cognitive development and decreased resistance to infection.||Non-haem (ie non meat) iron is not as well absorbed as haem (ie meat) iron, but absorption can be increased by Vitamin C. Eggs are a source of haem iron.Non-haem iron sources include: parsley, broccoli, fortified cereals, whole wheat bread, lentils, tofu, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pinto beans, peanut butter, potato, tomato juice and dried fruits.||As for vegetarian non-haem iron sources.|
|Zinc||Zinc takes part in many important chemical reactions around the body. It influences behaviour and learning and is essential to development.||Egg, yoghurt milk and cheese are a source of zinc for vegetarians.Plant sources: whole wheat bread, broccoli, potato, legumes, pinto beans, peanut butter, tofu, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.||As for vegetarian plant sources.|
|Vitamin B12||Minimal amounts are needed in the diet, but are essential for nervous system and bone health.||Milk, cheese, eggs, fortified cereals.||There are no natural plant sources of B12. Vegans must ensure they are consuming products such as cereals or soy milks that have been fortified with B12. Alternatively vegans could take a supplement.|
Other foods that are useful to include in a vegetarian/ vegan diet are seaweed/sea vegetables (for iodine) and flax seed oil and walnuts (for omega-3 fatty acids). Vegans and vegetarians who don’t get much sun may also need to consume vitamin D supplements or ensure they eat vitamin D fortified products (such as milk or margarine) as most dietary vitamin D is found in fish and eggs.
Nutrient deficiencies can’t be identified based on nutrient intakes alone, clinical and biochemical markets need to be assessed by a professional. If you have any concerns about your child’s growth, health or development consult your paediatrician or general practitioner.
*Vegetarian diet: A diet which excludes all meat (including chicken, fish and seafood) but includes dairy products and eggs.
American Dietetic Association 2009, ‘Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets’, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 109, pp. 1266-82.