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Vegetarian diets for children and teens

With good planning, a vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice that meets your growing child’s nutritional needs. Talk to your doctor about her diet to make sure she is getting everything she needs and growing well.

What is a vegetarian diet?  

A vegetarian diet means not eating the flesh of any animal. Some vegetarians also choose not to eat any food that comes from animals (like dairy products or eggs).
Here are the different types of vegetarian diet:

  • Vegan: eats only non-animal foods.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus dairy (no eggs).
  • Ovo-vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus eggs (no dairy).
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus eggs and dairy products.

Are vegetarian diets safe for babies and children?

Children need many nutrients, in the right amount, to grow and develop. Like any diet that doesn’t include certain foods, some vegetarian diets make it harder to get enough energy, protein, and certain nutrients.

Some nutrients—like vitamin B12—are only found in animal sources, such as cow’s milk. Iron, which is very important for babies and children, is more easily absorbed by the body when it comes from meat. So if your child’s diet doesn’t include animal foods, you’ll need to ensure these nutrients come from other sources. The chart below may help.

Are vegetarian diets safe for teens?

Puberty is a time of great change, and teens need a lot of energy and nutrients to get them through it. Be aware of your teen’s eating habits and help her eat the foods she needs to stay healthy. If you think your teen isn’t eating well, speak to your doctor or a dietitian.

How can vegetarian parents properly feed their baby?

Vegetarian women who are pregnant or nursing should speak to a dietitian to ensure they are getting enough protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.

Breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for at least the first 6 months of life. Babies who are exclusively breastfed should get a supplement of vitamin D every day.

At 6 months, you can begin to introduce other foods to your baby. Vegetarian babies should get the same variety of vegetables, fruits and iron-fortified cereals as other babies. Alternate foods should be added to replace protein sources such as meat, fish, poultry and (if they are not included in your baby’s diet) dairy products.

A healthy vegetarian diet should include:

  Energy (calories)
  • Vegetarian diets may have fewer calories than diets that include meat and dairy products. If your child is eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet, is gaining a healthy amount of weight and has lots of energy, then he is probably getting enough calories. Vegans might need extra sources of energy. Foods that are a high in energy include soy products, avocado, soy and canola oils, nuts and nut butters.
  • Small, frequent meals and snacks for toddlers may help increase the amount of calories they get.
  Protein
  • Protein helps to build, maintain and repair tissues in the body. Your child is probably getting enough protein if her diet has enough calories and includes many different kinds of plant foods. Foods such as legumes, cereals, nuts and seeds and their butters are rich in proteins that will your help your child better digest foods.
  Fibre
  • Fibre is a nutrient found in all plants. It helps with digestion and blood circulation. Pay close attention to the amount of fibre your child is eating. It’s possible to eat too much fibre which will fill him up so that he doesn’t eat enough calories overall and it can affect the amount of calcium, iron or zinc the body absorbes.
Minerals Iron
  • Babies and children need iron to make enough red blood cells and for their brains to develop normally. Some vegetables are a source of iron, but iron from plant foods isn’t absorbed as well as iron from meat foods. Cereals with added iron, grain products, dried beans and peas are good sources of iron. Talk to your doctor to see if your child needs an iron supplement.
  Calcium
  • Calcium is important for the growth and development of strong bones and teeth. Vegetables that have calcium include broccoli, sweet potatoes, great northern and navy beans, and leafy greens. You can also offer soy milk or orange juice that is fortified with extra calcium.
  Zinc
  • Zinc is an important mineral, especially for adolescents. It helps with growth, brain and sexual development. The best sources of the mineral zinc are meat, poultry, fish and yogurt. Some foods have zinc added to them, such as whole grains, wheat germ, brown rice, legumes, and spinach. Ask your doctor whether your child should take a supplement.
  Fat and fatty acids
  • Fat is an important part of a healthy diet. It helps the brain and nervous system develop correctly. Some vegetarian children eat less fat. Vegans can lack essential fatty acids because they are found mainly in fish and eggs. Fatty acids are important for brain and vision development. You can find them in canola oil, flaxseed oil and many nuts.
Vitamins Vitamin D
  • Babies need vitamin D for healthy growth and development. It helps them build strong, healthy bones and teeth. Babies who are exclusively breastfed, or who do not have vitamin D in their diets, need a supplement. Products that are fortified with vitamin D include: cow’s milk, margarine, infant formula, and most soy milk beverages.
  Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, including dairy products and eggs. Offer your child foods that have the vitamin added such as cereals, breads, and soy and rice drinks.

 



Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Community Paediatrics Committee

Last Updated: December 2010