Guiding Vegetarian Diets In Children

  • Muna HassanBachelor of science in molecular biology and Genetics Üsküdar Üniversitesi

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Overview

Do you see a trend that quite a few in your social circle are becoming vegetarians or vegans in recent years? Aren’t you hearing more and more about lifestyle and food habit changes, carbon footprints and climate change nowadays? Yes. It is high time that we aim to harness greener choices every day for the betterment of the future world. Most importantly, we should take forward these revolutionary thoughts to the next generation. 

The first and foremost step forward in this journey could be considering becoming a vegetarian. Let us focus on how to encourage vegetarianism for kids and delve into the potential challenges that may arise from a lifelong commitment to vegetarian food.

What is vegetarianism?

Vegetarianism is a dietary practice where one would choose to consume mainly plant-based foods for their nutritional needs and abstain from any type of meat, poultry, seafood and also animal-derived products like gelatin. Some people would like to have certain exceptions to dairy and/or eggs.1

Why is it important to guide vegetarian food in children?

You can choose to become a vegetarian for different reasons including health and environment concerns, beliefs in animal welfare and generations of cultural or religious traditions. Despite this reason, it is important to plan and follow a balanced diet every meal with adequate essential nutrients, as improperly planned vegetarian diets are known to cause deficiencies.2

Introducing children to a variety of nutritious plant-based foods very early promotes healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. Your kids would appreciate an explanation of how eliminating certain foods may affect their nutritional needs and why they need to be extra-vigilant in choosing the balanced mix of foods when practising vegetarianism.3

A balanced diet in children is crucial for 

  • Optimal physical growth 
  • Bone health
  • Cognitive function
  • Immune health
  • Efficient nutrient absorption
  • Prevent nutritional deficiencies
  • Energy requirements for physical activity
  • Healthy eating/snacking habits

How to obtain the nutrients needed in a vegetarian diet?

You can guide your children through the practical aspects of how to fulfil the nutritional needs of their body effectively yet with ease while being a vegetarian. Encouraging balanced diets that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats would help your kids develop a positive relationship with food and make nutritious choices as they grow older.4

The basic yet crucial nutritional components of a child’s growth and development are 

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

Although the above nutrients are found in abundance in animal products, laying out the diversified vegetarian options would interest the kids more and make them aware of the reliable and sustainable vegetarian sources of nutrients for a long-term dietary commitment.

Protein intake 

Protein intake is essential for muscle growth, immune function, and overall development in children.5 You can guide your children towards diverse vegetarian protein sources such as legumes and pulses, tofu, soy, nuts and seeds that help to meet their protein requirements.

Iron absorption

Iron is crucial for a child’s cognitive development and energy metabolism.6 It is important to make kids aware of the fact that our body absorbs plant-based iron less readily than from animal products.7 However, guiding them through the wide variety of plant-based iron sources such as spinach (cooked), tofu, different sorts of beans and lentils, prunes, raisins, apricots, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and also fortified cereals and beverages will give them a range of options to choose from. Furthermore, directing kids to consume iron alongside vitamin C (citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries) will help in effective iron absorption.8

Calcium

Calcium is vital for a child’s bone and teeth development and maintenance. Despite the obvious choice of dairy products,  you can encourage kids to explore plant-based calcium sources such as fortified plant milk and fruit juices, tofu, almonds, and leafy greens. In addition to calcium,  a little nudge to good sun exposure or supplements during winter will help the kids to get adequate vitamin D for healthy bones.9

Omega-3 fatty acids

Although the common thoughts on omega-3 fatty acids sources are fish and seafood, you can surprisingly find easy sources of plant-based omega-3s such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, seaweed and algae, soybeans and soy products.10 You can easily develop a regular pattern of snacking every day on one of these products to ensure omega-3 intake for your kids’ cognitive development.

Vitamin B12 

It is challenging to find vitamin B12 from plant-based sources, that too inadequate levels. However, fortified plant-based beverages and cereals and not to forget, fortified nutritional yeast (often used as substitutes for cheese in vegan dishes) are rich in B12. Vitamin B12 intake is mandatory for kids as it plays a central role in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells, the development of the nervous system and cognitive function.11

If your family has recently turned vegetarian, it is important to be mindful of regular monitoring of nutritional levels and consider compensating with supplemental intake to prevent any nutritional inadequacy or deficiency. Please talk to health care providers for age-relevant vitamin and mineral supplements for children to prevent any dip in their growth curve due to any nutritional deficit.

Advantages of a vegetarian diet

Despite the challenges, a vegetarian diet offers several advantages, especially when practised from childhood. Children who consume vegetarian foods on an everyday basis naturally have a higher intake of nutrient-dense foods such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fibre.12 This practice promotes an overall healthy attitude towards food and reduces the risk of many chronic diseases.

The potential advantages of leading a vegetarian lifestyle from an early age are often associated with health benefits, environmental benefits and a sense of responsibility towards the planet and fellow living beings13 as follows:

  • Lower risk of obesity
  • Improved heart health
  • Lower risks of hypertension and type 2 diabetes
  • Improved gut health
  • Maintenance of a healthy weight
  • Lower levels of bad cholesterol and saturated fats
  • High dietary fibre 
  • High levels of antioxidants
  • Lower carbon footprint 
  • Promoting sustainability
  • Sense of compassion towards animals
  • Environmental friendly attitude 
  • Respecting cultural and ethical values
  • Exploration of new food and cuisines

Tips to encourage vegetarian diet in children

It is very important that the child understands the concept of vegetarianism before bringing in a rigorous practice. As a parent, you can positively influence your child’s eating habits and help to embrace vegetarianism wholeheartedly. If you make the transition easy and relatable for your children, there is a high chance of lifelong commitment.

Here are some tips to support or instil vegetarian diet in children:

  • Lead by example - Model healthy vegetarian eating behaviours
  • Eat together as a family and invite vegetarian friends/family over to demonstrate enjoyment of vegetarian foods
  • Educate about the nutritional benefits of vegetarian foods and talk about where foods come from
  • Make learning fun by involving children in meal planning and grocery shopping
  • Introducing vegetarian foods from a young age helps to develop a taste for plant-based foods and explore more in future
  • Involve children in age-appropriate meal preparation and cooking activities
  • Make vegetarian meals creative using visually appealing colours and shapes
  • Always offer favourites along with the experimented veggie foods 
  • Be patient and support the gradual transition by substituting meat with plant-based alternatives in familiar recipes
  • Avoid pressuring or forcing them. Offer a variety of vegetarian options and allow children to choose what they want to eat
  • Do not forget to celebrate their efforts in trying new foods 
  • Offer a variety of balanced nutritious vegetarian snacks to enjoy between meals such as mixed fresh fruits with flax or hemp seed toppings, vegetables with hummus or nut butter, whole grain crackers, yoghurt, nuts and seeds
  • Be open to discussing their questions and concerns about vegetarianism
  • Do not undermine their opinions or neglect their answers and have a constructive discussion
  • Provide age-appropriate information about vegetarian food but do not overwhelm or bore them
  • Connect with other families or friends who follow a vegetarian lifestyle for recipe ideas, advice and resources

Summary

A well-planned vegetarian diet offers all the essential nutrients for a child’s optimal growth and development. However, a child’s lifelong commitment to vegetarianism requires encouragement, positive influence and persistent guidance. Besides making consistent efforts and planning strategies, parents must take their children for regular checkups and work with healthcare professionals to monitor their nutritional levels. Guiding children towards a plant-based, vegetarian diet helps in laying a strong foundation for a healthy, disease-free lifestyle in addition to instilling values of compassion and sustainability.

References

  1. Hargreaves SM, Raposo A, Saraiva A, Zandonadi RP. Vegetarian diet: an overview through the perspective of quality of life domains. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2021 Apr 12 [cited 2024 Mar 26];18(8):4067. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8069426/
  2. Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010 Dec;25(6):613–20.
  3. Amit M. Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & Child Health [Internet]. 2010 Jun [cited 2024 Mar 26];15(5):303. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912628/
  4. Cena H, Calder PC. Defining a healthy diet: evidence for the role of contemporary dietary patterns in health and disease. Nutrients [Internet]. 2020 Jan 27 [cited 2024 Mar 26];12(2):334. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071223/
  5. Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food & Function [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Mar 26];7(3):1251–65. Available from: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2016/fo/c5fo01530h
  6. Abbaspour N, Hurrell R, Kelishadi R. Review on iron and its importance for human health. J Res Med Sci [Internet]. 2014 Feb [cited 2024 Mar 26];19(2):164–74. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3999603/
  7. Larson LM, Phiri KS, Pasricha SR. Iron and cognitive development: what is the evidence? Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism [Internet]. 2017 Dec 22 [cited 2024 Mar 26];71(Suppl. 3):25–38. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1159/000480742
  8. Skolmowska D, Głąbska D. Effectiveness of dietary intervention with iron and vitamin c administered separately in improving iron status in young women. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2022 Jan [cited 2024 Mar 26];19(19):11877. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/19/19/11877
  9. Abrams SA. Bone health in school age children: effects of nutritional intake on outcomes. Front Nutr [Internet]. 2021 Nov 19 [cited 2024 Mar 26];8:773425. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8640096/
  10. Lane K, Derbyshire E, Li W, Brennan C. Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(5):572–9.
  11. Venkatramanan S, Armata IE, Strupp BJ, Finkelstein JL. Vitamin b-12 and cognition in children123. Adv Nutr [Internet]. 2016 Sep 7 [cited 2024 Mar 26];7(5):879–88. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5015033/
  12. Neufingerl N, Eilander A. Nutrient intake and status in adults consuming plant-based diets compared to meat-eaters: a systematic review. Nutrients [Internet]. 2021 Dec 23 [cited 2024 Mar 26];14(1):29. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8746448/
  13. Fraser GE. The vegetarian advantage: its potential for the health of our planet, our livestock, and our neighbors! Forsch Komplementmed [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Mar 26];23(2):66–8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6065528/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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PhD in Ocular Immunobiology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Vijayalakshmi is fondly called as “Viji” by friends, family and colleagues. Viji is an ardent lover of science. She has a profound knowledge in ophthalmology, cell biology, stem cells and regenerative medicine.

Viji has several years of research experience in interdisciplinary therapeutic areas. During the journey, she discovered her interests in communicating science via posters, presentations and research papers and teaching young, budding scientists.

She enjoys conveying complex science in simple terms. Viji aims to harness medical writing as a profession to facilitate easy access of high-quality medical content for a range of audiences.

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