Special Considerations for Children and Adolescents Following a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

By Donna Barnett, MA, RDN, CDN

Plants give us lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protective phytochemicals. Plant based diets can reduce your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. There are several different kinds of plant based diets. For example, someone who is vegan avoids red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and all other animal products. The most common types of plant based diets are included in the chart below.


These diets can be very healthy, however, there are also some nutrition risks for vegetarians and vegans, especially for infants, children, and adolescents who have extra needs for growth and development. Without careful planning, kids can be at risk for restricted intake of important nutrients, especially if they are picky eaters. To eat healthy, vegetarians and vegans should be willing to eat a wide variety of veggies, fruits, and whole grains. Vegetarians may also choose to add dairy, eggs, and poultry or fish depending on the type of plant-based diet they follow.

Nutrition Needs for Children and Adolescents:

Protein

  • Children and adolescents have higher protein needs than adults.
  • Vegetarians who eat eggs, dairy, and/or fish can usually get enough protein.
  • Vegans should have a variety of legumes and grains every day.

Calcium

  • Limiting dairy can reduce calcium and vitamin D intake which are important for bone health.
  • If avoiding dairy, aim for 3-4 servings per day of calcium fortified plant milks, orange juice, and veggies like broccoli and kale.
  • It is best to get nutrients from food, but calcium and vitamin D supplements are available if needed.

Vitamin B12, Zinc, and Iron

  • Include foods fortified with B12, zinc, and iron such as breakfast cereals.
  • Iron from animal foods is easier for our bodies to break down. Iron from plant foods is better absorbed when eaten with fruits or veggies high in vitamin C, like citrus and colorful bell peppers.
  • Take multivitamins with iron separately from calcium supplements since calcium and iron compete to be absorbed.

Weight management:

  • With so many processed or convenience foods available, some not so healthy vegetarian (i.e. mac and cheese and pudding) or vegan foods (i.e. chips and cookies) can easily become a regular part of a child’s diet. Use these only as treats on occasion.
  • Making veggies, fruits, and whole grains part of each meal or snack can help limit calories, and keep you fuller longer because of their fiber and water content.

Planning ahead:

  • Use reputable resources to learn about vegetarian and vegan diets, such as eatright.org, and choosemyplate.gov.
  • Read food labels to identify fortified vitamins and minerals.
  • Limit processed foods.
  • Experiment in the kitchen.

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s nutrition speak to a registered dietitian.

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