Vegetarian and Vegan Diets – Are They Safe for My Kid?

Vegetable-heavy and meat-free diets may not be for everyone. Parents who are used to eating both plants and animal meat may not be so comfortable with raising their kids as vegetarians or vegans. You might be worried if your child will get enough calories and nutrients every day. However, pediatricians will tell you that it’s a healthy way of life for children. So, if you’re considering acquainting your child to this lifestyle, this guide will tell you the important things you should know about vegetarian and vegan diets.

At A Glance

  • A vegetarian is an individual who consciously avoids eating any type of meat (e.g., game, poultry, fish, and shellfish). Instead, this diet contains a vast selection of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, etc.
  • There are several types of vegetarianism: (1) lacto-ovo vegetarianism (allows the consumption of eggs and dairy products), (2) lacto vegetarianism (allows the consumption of dairy products), (3) ovo vegetarianism (allows the consumption of eggs), (4) semi vegetarianism (allows the consumption of fish or chicken, and (5) veganism (strictest form of vegetarianism that swears off animal flesh and by-products of animal slaughter like eggs and dairy products).
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics both, find vegetarian and vegan diets to be healthy for infants, toddlers, and older children.
  • Some of the health benefits of following a vegetarian or vegan diet include: (1) longer lifespans, (2) healthier weight, (3) fewer health risks, and (4) healthier bone development.
  • Among the environmental benefits of following a vegetarian or vegan diet include: (1) the preservation of animal life, (2) conservation of water, and (3) reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
People’s eating habits are established while they are very young, usually in early childhood. And so, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or planning to be one, it’s okay to encourage your kids to do the same. Neither should you be alarmed if your older child decides to become one. But before we delve deeper into the benefits of being a vegetarian or vegan, let’s take the time to define these two diets. We should also learn what makes them different from each other.

Is a vegetarian or vegan diet good for your kid?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, are on the same page when it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets: They are perfectly healthy for children [Source: EatRight]. But just like for meat-eating children, parents must plan for their vegetarian and vegan children’s daily food consumption. You need to make sure that your child gets all the essential nutrients to help him grow and develop normally.

Healthy eating. Happy family mother and children prepares vegetarian dish

Why should I choose a vegetarian diet for my kids?

There are two main reasons why you and your kids should try to live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. First, doing so is beneficial for you and your children’s health. Second, your family may be helping in saving the environment by not eating meat. However, there are drawbacks to following a meat-free diet as well. To help you in deciding if this lifestyle is suitable for your family, below are a list of pros and cons that come with being a vegetarian or vegan.

What is vegetarianism?

According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is an individual who consciously avoids eating any type of meat. This includes game, poultry, fish, and shellfish. This diet contains a vast selection of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, etc. A vegetarian may also refrain from consuming any by-product of animal slaughter, including eggs and dairy products.

Types of Vegetarianism

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: No consumption of any and all kinds of animal flesh but may consume eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarianism: No consumption of any and all kinds of animal flesh, including eggs, but may consume dairy products.
  • Ovo-vegetarianism: No consumption of any and all kinds of animal flesh, including dairy products, but may consume eggs.
  • Semi-vegetarianism: Consumption of mostly vegetables but may also eat fish or chicken, etc.
  • Veganism: The strictest form of vegetarianism.

What is veganism?

As previously mentioned, veganism is the strictest type of vegetarianism. People who follow this diet completely avoid eating all animal meat as well as all animal-derived products such as eggs and dairy. According to Vegan Society, being a vegan is not just a diet but a way of life. It entails completely swearing off buying, consuming, and using products which were created using any form of animal exploitation or cruelty. Therefore, vegans also avoid eating honey, albumin, gelatin, etc. They also refuse to patronize certain clothing and beauty brands that test their products on animals.

Health Benefits and Potential Disadvantages of Vegetarianism

Pros:

  1. Longer lifespans. According to a 2003 peer-reviewed study, observing a vegetarian or low-meat diet for two decades can improve life expectancy by as much as 3.6 years [Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition].
  2. Healthier weight and fewer health risks. Vegetarians have lower body weight compared to meat-eating individuals. Vegetarianism is also associated with lower incidence of chronic illnesses like heart diseases and diabetes [Source: Nutrition Reviews].
  3. Less likely to develop cancer. Eating pork, break, or lamb at least five times a week heightens the risk of developing colon cancer. On the other hand, eating vegetable and fiber-rich food has yet to show any link to colon cancer risks [Source: Cancer Research].
  4. Healthier bone development. Green and leafy vegetables and legumes are the healthiest sources of calcium. Animal protein, on the other hand, has high renal acid levels which tend to dissolve calcium in the bones. Consequently, the nutrient is not absorbed but exits the body through the urine [Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine].
  5. Less likely to develop kidney stones and gallstones. According to a 1999 study, high-protein diets based largely on animal protein is linked to higher rates of kidney stone development in the U.S. [Source: American Family Physician].
Cons:

  1. Potential nutrient deficiencies. Non-vegetarian people take in enough vitamin B-12, calcium, and omega 3-fats by eating meat and fatty fish and drinking dairy milk. Vegetarians, however, need to get them from fortified food sources and supplements.

Environmental Benefits and Disadvantages of Vegetarianism

Pros:

  1. Preserve animal life. As sentient beings, animals are capable of feeling fear and pain. For vegetarians, it is cruel, unethical and unnecessary to kill them when plant-based and healthier options are available.
  2. Conserve water. It takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. Meanwhile, it only takes 111 gallons of water to produce a pound of tofu.
  3. Lower emissions of greenhouse gas. Raising animals for slaughter is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases according to the United Nations. To prevent the harmful effects of climate change, the world needs to shy away from consuming animal products [Source: United Nations Environment Programme].
  4. Reduce air and water pollution. It takes 13.3 gallons of carbon dioxide to produce just one pound of beef. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that livestock and poultry operations in the country produce around 500 million tons of animal manure. Consequently, the manure contaminates the air and nearby bodies of water. [Source: Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production]
Cons:

  1. Topsoil erosion and degradation due to agriculture. Because of farming, the topsoil of the majority of US cropland (90%) is eroding over a dozen times faster than what is sustainable [Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition].

Vegetarianism vs. Veganism: Which is Healthier?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes that vegetarian and vegan diets are very healthy and safe for all ages. However, if your intention is to maintain or reduce your child’s weight, or lessen the risk of certain chronic diseases, then a vegan diet slightly has the upper hand. For example, vegans have a lower risk of having heart disease or type 2 diabetes compared to vegetarians and meat-eaters.

However, if you fail to plan your child’s diet well, following a vegan diet has a higher likelihood of leading to serious nutrient deficiencies. For instance, vegetarians tend to take in more calcium and vitamin B12 compared to vegans.

Nutrition Considerations for Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Vegetarian and vegan diets require the consumption of large amounts of nutrient-rich foods. That’s why children who are observing these types of diet get more than enough fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy plant chemicals. Vegetarian and vegan children and adults also tend to have lower cholesterol and saturated fat in their bodies.

However, when parents fail to plan their children’s diet carefully, some vegetarian and vegan kids fail to take enough of the following nutrients:

  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin B
  • Vitamin B12
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Because of their inadequate intake of these nutrients, some vegetarian and vegan kids may experience adverse effects on their physical and mental well-being.

Best Food Sources for Vegetarian and Vegan Kids

If you are raising a vegetarian or vegan child, you need to pay special attention to his nutrition needs. As a guide, you may refer to table below to determine the best food sources suitable for vegetarians to consume specific nutrients.

NutrientsBest Food Sources for VegetariansBest Food Sources for Vegans
ProteinBreast milk (for babies), dairy products (for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), soy products, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts.Breastmilk (for babies), soy products, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts.
CalciumBreast milk (for babies), formula milk and dairy products (for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), fortified soy milk and orange juice, sweet potatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, great northern and navy beans, and calcium supplement.Breastmilk (for babies), fortified soy milk and orange juice, sweet potatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, great northern and navy beans, and calcium supplement.
Vitamin DFortified cow’s milk (for lacto- and lacto- ovo vegetarians), egg yolks (for ovo- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), fish (for semi-vegetarians), fortified soy milk and orange juice, and playing in the sun for a few minutes a day. Fortified soy milk and orange juice, and playing in the sun for a few minutes a day.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)Milk products (for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), egg yolks (for ovo- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), fortified soy milk, fortified cereals, meat substitutes, nutritional yeast, and food supplements. Fortified soy milk, fortified cereals, meat substitutes, nutritional yeast, and food supplements.
IronEggs (for ovo- and lacto-ovo vegetarians), dried fruits and beans, whole grains, leafy greens, iron-fortified cereals and bread, and food supplements.Dried fruits and beans, whole grains, leafy greens, iron-fortified cereals and bread, and food supplements.
ZincDried beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, wheat germs, and fortified cereals.Dried beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, wheat germs, and fortified cereals.
Omega-3 fatty acidsFish (semi-vegetarians), nuts (e.g., walnuts), dark greens (e.g., cauliflower), fortified soy milk, and fortified cereals.Nuts (e.g., walnuts), dark greens (e.g., cauliflower), fortified soy milk, and fortified cereals.

Reality check: Is a vegan diet suitable for kids?

1st statement: A vegan diet is healthier for children than a normal mixed diet.

This is wrong. It is true that vegan diets often involve a high proportion of fiber-rich cereal products as well as fruit and vegetables. At first glance, this is healthier than a menu with steaks, spaghetti bolognese and salami rolls. In return, however, the renunciation of any animal foodstuffs carries other, massive dangers.

Many of the nutrients the body needs to survive are found mainly in animal foods. These include protein building blocks, certain long-chain fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, iodine, zinc, and selenium. While vegetarians can cover their needs with dairy products, eggs, and a balanced plant-based diet, this is difficult for vegans and even impossible with regard to vitamin B12.

This statement already applies to adults. In children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, the risk of deficiency symptoms is even greater due to an increased nutrient requirement. They can only live a healthy life without all animal products if they take food supplements. For this reason, a vegan diet cannot be healthier than a mixed diet, especially for children – after all, it does not supply the body with all vital substances. Vegan children are among the few groups at risk of malnutrition. For vegan kids, one egg per day would be a good treat because they contain so many important animal nutrients.

2nd statement: A vegan diet is not harmful.

That is also not generally true. It is particularly problematic if mothers eat vegan while breastfeeding – and do not pay attention to a sufficient supply of vitamin B 12. They pass this deficiency on to the infants via breast milk. There are a number of cases in which the babies have had significant developmental delays or have suffered from severe anemia in combination with a low iron level.

In recent years, clinics have reported several cases where babies and toddlers had to be treated in intensive care units because they suffered from a severe vitamin B12 deficiency due to a vegan diet. There are even isolated cases where children who have been fed strictly vegan and have not received the necessary supplements have died as a result of this malnutrition. In short: children must always also take in vitamin B-12 with food with vegan nutrition.

3rd statement: Experts agree that a vegan diet is impossible for infants and young children.

Despite all the dangers – that too cannot be said. Several international organizations take the view that a well-planned vegan diet can be appropriate for all age groups, including pregnancy and lactation. Among them for example the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.
However, all link their statements to the prerequisite that the diet is well planned and includes nutrient preparations and fortified foods.

Tips on How to Gradually Introduce Your Child to a Vegetarian or Vegan Lifestyle

  • #1: If it’s time to introduce your child to solid foods, feed him with protein-rich foods like pureed tofu and legumes, mashed fruits, and soy yogurt.
  • #2: Do your best to expose your kid to different vegan meals. This will help him get used to tasting new foods.
  • #4: Make sure your child is meeting his calorie needs so he never feels hungry. Frequently feed him small snacks containing healthy but less bulky food items.
  • #5: Get your kids involved in the food-making process, from grocery shopping to preparing meals.
  • #6: Educate your child about the origins and sources of food by teaching him how to cook, gardening, and bringing him to farmers’ markets.
  • #7: Consult with a registered dietitian to help you plan your child’s vegetarian or vegan diet.

Q&A About Following a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet for Kids

Do vegetarian or vegan kids grow up to be smaller in size than non-vegetarians?

While there are a few studies which suggest that vegetarian or vegan kids initially grow slower, they eventually catch up to non-vegetarians. The final heights and weights of vegetarian kids are no different from kids that consume meat.

Is a vegetarian or vegan diet safe for babies?

Yes. However, for infants, the best food and nutritional source is the mother’s breast milk. Milk alternatives which are fortified with essential nutrients are only recommended after 12 months.

Are vegetarian foods universally healthy?

No. Some vegetarian foods contain a lot of sugar, cholesterol, and saturated fat. Therefore, it is very important that you carefully plan your child’s diet regardless of whether he is vegetarian or eats meat.

 

There’s no reason for you to get so anxious about planning your kid’s vegetarian or vegan diet. Just like any healthy and balanced diet, you just need to make sure that he gets all the nutrients he needs from all the food groups. But should you have questions, it is best to consult with your family doctor.

Vegetarian and Vegan Diets – Are They Safe for My Kid?
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