Vegetarian and Vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular with reports that up to one third of us are choosing to cut down on our consumption of animal products. Additionally an estimated 14,000 people in the UK took part in Veganuary 2019.
For parents looking to cut down on animal products, the question often follows; can a vegetarian diet be healthy for my child?
The simple answer is yes.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be perfectly healthy for both adults and children. However, when it comes to children’s nutrition intakes the key really is in the word “well-planned.” While cutting down on animal products can sometimes be beneficial for both health and environmental reasons, if you start eliminating certain foods from your child’s diet, it is important to make sure you’re replacing any of the key nutrients in these foods.
What is a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarian diets can take many forms but typically a vegetarian diet eliminates meat but not dairy foods, whereas a vegan diet eliminates all animal products entirely, including dairy, eggs and honey. People often follow variations of these diets and adapt their approach to suit their lifestyle. For this reason other useful titles such as “flexatarion”, “plant based” and “pescatarian” (no meat but fish is included) diets are used frequently in the UK too.
Whichever variation your child may follow, how do you make sure you’re still offering them the recommended “healthy, balanced diet”?
Nutrient considerations for a vegetarian diet
Following a vegetarian or a plant-based diet means paying a little more attention to the foods you and your children are eating day to day. For example there are some important nutrients that you may need to consider, which we will cover in detail below. Ultimately it comes down to variety and trying to include foods from each of the food groups a few times each day.
Key nutrients to be aware of when following a vegetarian diet:
Protein is crucial for so many different functions in the human body, from helping our bones and muscles to function, to supporting our immune system. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which we can only get from our diet. Animal foods contain the “complete set” of amino acids we can’t make ourselves (called essential), while most plant foods only contain some of them. That means that if you’re following a vegetarian diet it’s important to ensure you’re getting a variety of protein sources into your child’s meals to be sure that they’re getting all of those essential amino acids.
Ideally, vegetarian children should be getting 1-2 protein-rich foods every day to meet their needs. Once children get a little older they may need more like 2-3 portions of protein foods a day.
These might include:
- Ground nuts or nut butters
- Kidney Beans
I’ve written a whole blog specifically on iron here, but iron is a key nutrient to be aware of on a vegetarian diet. Iron has many different functions in the body. It’s especially important for making hemoglobin: a protein contained in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. Iron also has a key role in maintaining a healthy immune system. There are two types of iron; haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in animal sources and is more easily absorbed in the body while non-haem iron is found in plant-based foods. If you’re getting your iron primarily from plant sources, it’s likely you’re going to need a little extra day to day. It’s also advised that we should include some vitamin C with a meal containing plant sources of iron to help enhance iron absorption. Try adding some berries to your child’s breakfast cereal or including some tomatoes or peppers when cooking meals.
Vegetarian children should try to include a couple of portions of “protein rich” foods (see above) every day, which should also help to provide iron for babies and children too. This is because sources of iron in a vegetarian diet are similar to protein sources and include:
- Seeds & ground nuts/nut butters
- Kidney beans
- Soya beans
- Dried fruits
Calcium is an important mineral that’s essential for healthy bones, muscle contraction, wound healing and more. Dairy and eggs are great sources of calcium but plenty of plant-based sources can be too.
Vegetarian sources of calcium:
- Fortified plant-milks
- Beans and pulses
- Fish (when tinned with bones)
- Wholemeal bread
- Fortified cereals
- Dark Green Leafy Vegetables such as broccoli and spring greens, okra
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient which contributes to healthy bones and also helps to control the amount of calcium in our blood. Good dietary sources of vitamin D include oily fish and eggs, but some of the time we can’t get all we need from our diet. A significant part of the vitamin D we need comes from the sunshine and in the UK, where sunshine is limited (particularly between the months October – April), most of us are likely to be deficient in vitamin D. Taking a vitamin D supplement is therefore recommended during the winter months, even for those consuming animal products.
You can read more about vitamin D supplement recommendations for children here.
Zinc is another mineral with important functions in the body including making new cells & enzymes and wound healing. Phytates found in plant foods such as whole grains and beans can reduce zinc absorption, so it’s important to get enough good sources of zinc-containing foods. Good sources include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Fermented soya – tempeh & miso
Vitamin B12 is one of the key nutrients to think about on a vegetarian diet as it’s exclusively found in animal sources. It’s a really important nutrient, needed for healthy red blood cells, cell division and nerve structure and function. If you’re including dairy and eggs in your child’s diet, they’re likely to be getting sufficient B12. If not, fortified cereals and milks can be a good source, or you might also want to consider a supplement for your little one. The Vegan Society offers a supplement that can be given to children (check dosage recommendations) and contains vitamin D, B vitamins and iodine.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 is a family of fats that come in different forms and have been linked to a number of important health benefits. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential fatty acid, meaning we cannot make it ourselves and need to get it from our diet. It plays an important role in inflammatory response and blood pressure as well as producing other types of omega-3 acids: EPA and DHA.
Ideally, we should be aiming to eat foods rich in all omega-3 fatty acids – ALA, EPA and DHA – which can be a little more challenging on a vegetarian diet, as oily fish is a great source of these. Good vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids include;
- Flax (linseed),
- Hemp seeds,
- Chia seeds,
- Soya beans
- Oils such as hemp, rapeseed and flaxseed oils.
- Omega-3 enriched foods such as eggs and certain brands of milk, yoghurt, bread and spreads can also be a useful source so look out for those where you can!
Iodine has thankfully been in the news a lot more recently, as is a nutrient that largely gets ignored.
If your child consumes dairy foods, then they are likely to be getting enough in the way of iodine as a glass of milk or a yogurt will contain a big proportion of the recommended amount of iodine needed. Additionally, if your toddler eats fish, they are likely to be getting a good source of iodine. However for children who don’t consume dairy or fish you might need to look at fortified sources of iodine in the diet such as milk alternatives, infant/toddler milks or even a supplement (see B12 section). I’ve written a whole blog about iodine, so please do check this out too – iodine recommendations for mum and baby.
What about a vegan diet for children?
A vegan diet is one which restricts the consumption of all animal products in the diet. This means an increased chance of deficiency in all of the nutrients we’ve mentioned so far, particularly vitamin B12 and iodine. Ensure you’re choosing fortified options of dairy alternatives and fortified cereal options too. These should include B vitamins, iron and calcium. Other nutrients to look out for on a vegan diet are Omega-3-fatty acids. Good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids include walnuts, flaxseeds and rapeseed oil.
A vegan diet doesn’t have to mean restriction or deficiency and once again, as long as it’s well-planned a vegan diet can be balanced for your child.
Take home messages
- A well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy for any age
- Key nutrients to focus on are Protein, Calcium, Iron, Vitamin D, B12, Zinc, iodine and Omega-3
- As always variety is key and feeding your child a wide variety of foods is going to be the best way to ensure you’re covering all nutrients.
- Don’t worry about trying to fit all nutrients into one meal; aim to include everything throughout the day or week.
- If your child is following a vegan diet, make sure you’re choosing fortified cereals and alternative milks and consider supplementing with B12.
- Consider a Vitamin D supplement throughout the winter months in the UK (October – April)
Written for SR Nutrition by Kat Thomas, Nutrition and Dietetics Student at London Metropolitan University with support of Charlotte Stirling-Reed