Vegetarianism and Your Child's Nutrition

While vegetarianism is growing in popularity among children and teens, many parents are concerned about what effects vegetarianism might have on their child’s growth and development. However, most dietary and medical experts agree that a well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy for children; however, special care needs to be taken in order to ensure that a child following a vegetarian diet receives the nutrition he needs in order to grow at a healthy rate.

Types of Vegetarian Diets
There are four main vegetarianism types:

ovo-vegetarian: eggs are eaten but meat is not lacto-ovo vegetarian: dairy products and eggs are consumed but meat is not lacto-vegetarian: dairy is consumed; eggs and meat are not vegan: only foods from plant sources are consumed

In addition, some individuals are what is known as semi-vegetarians, who don’t eat red meat but who might have other types of meat products, such as chicken or fish.

Choosing Vegetarianism
There are several reasons your child might choose to be a vegetarian or why you would like your family to switch to vegetarianism. The choice to be vegetarian might be based on health reasons, or concerns for the environment or animals.

Vegetarianism for Kids
Most experts believe that healthy vegetarian diet goes hand in hand with healthy child development. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is healthy for most children, although most allergists recommend not introducing eggs to children under the age of 12 months.

As a parent, you can ensure that your child follows a healthy, well-balanced diet based on a variety of foods. These foods should include lots of green, leafy vegetables that are high in fiber and whole grain foods and should contain a limited amount of fatty, sugary or salty foods.

Some nutrients that vegetarian children should be sure to get include and the foods in which they can be found are:

vitamin B12: soy, rice, dairy products, eggs, bread and vitamin-fortified foods like cereals vitamin D: dairy products, calcium-fortified orange juice and vitamin-fortified foods calcium: dairy products, chick peas, broccoli and dark leafy vegetables such as spinach protein: dairy products, nuts, dried beans, tofu and eggs iron: whole grains, eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, iron-fortified breads and cereals and leafy vegetables zinc: nuts, legumes, fortified cereal and wheat germ

The Older Vegetarian Child or Vegetarian Teenager
A meat-free diet can be an excellent healthy eating choice for pre-teens and teenagers, especially because of the fact that vegetarian children and teenagers eat more fruits and vegetables than their non-vegetarian peers. The best vegetarian diet for teens is a lacto-ovo diet, as a stricter vegetarian diet may lead to an insufficient intake of such nutrients as iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12.

The Vegetarian Infant
For the first six months of life, breast milk or formula are the main the sources of nutrients for infants. At six months, solid foods such as fruits and vegetables should be introduced. Meat and poultry are generally not introduced until 9 months.

According to the American Dietetic Association, it is recommended that once a child is introduced to solids, protein-rich foods like cottage cheese, pureed and strained legumes (such as peas, chickpeas and lentils) and pureed tofu, can be introduced. A breastfed infant vegan should be given a vitamin B12 source if the mother’s diet does not contain supplements and vitamin D if sun exposure is insufficient.

The Vegetarian Toddler
Toddlers have special nutritional concerns, because as they stop being breast or bottle fed at around the one-year mark, they are at risk for nutritional deficiencies. As such, it is important to include fortified cereals and nutrient-dense foods in your child’s diet, including vegetables and legumes; vitamin supplementation is recommended when a child is not receiving adequate nutrition, a situation which is common in toddlers who are picky eaters.