Growing children can be perfectly healthy on a vegan or vegetarian diet, however it's essential that their development is monitored and any nutrient deficiencies are supplemented.
If you're vegan or vegetarian, naturally you will want your child to have a similar diet to you. But rapidly growing children have different requirements to adults, which can make it harder for a growing (vegan or vegetarian) boy or girl to get everything they need. However, the good news is that vegan or vegetarian diets can be ok for children.
However, it is essential for a pediatrician and/or nutritionist to monitor the child's growth and diet. Any vegan diet which is not monitored for deficiencies and does not supplement essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3s, iron and zinc can result in permanent issues.
Kinds of Vegetarianism
What does it even mean to be vegetarian? Vegetarianism is divided into numerous sub-groups, so one vegetarian's diet may not look all that similar to another. Based on the level of restriction from animal products, vegetarianism can be divided into the following categories:
- Vegan (no animal products whatsoever)
- Lacto-vegetarian (eats dairy)
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (eats dairy and eggs)
- Pescatarian (eats dairy, eggs and fish/seafood)
- Pollotarian (eats dairy, eggs and poultry)
- Fruitarian (typically only fruit, nuts and seeds)
While these are the most common categories, there are even more that could be added to the list, like macrobiotic diets, Ital diets, raw food diets, and more.
Vegetarian and vegan diets have shown to be beneficial to the overall human health. Adults who are on these type of diets tend to have lower body mass indexes, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and colon and prostate cancers.
But despite the benefits, they can also lead to nutritional deficits. The people mostly badly affected are typically pregnant or lactating women as well as children as it is more essential for them to avoid any deficiencies while they are undergoing such rapid growth and development.
Vegan or Vegetarian Children
The American Dietetic Association does not advise against vegetarian or vegan diets for infants, toddlers or children. However, they do state the importance of having a pediatrician and/or nutritionist closely monitoring children on these types of diets so that there are no nutritional deficiencies. Particularly restrictive diets, including frutarianism, Ital, macrobiotic or raw food diets are not appropriate for children.
Any appropriate vegetarian or vegan diet for infants, toddlers and adolescents should include:
- Legumes, including soy and its products (soy milk, tofu)
- Nuts, seeds and their products (e.g. nut butters)
Since plant protein is not as easily digested as animal protein, the total amount of daily plant protein in children on vegan diets should be increased vs. an unrestricted diet. The best sources of protein in vegan diets are legumes (particularly soy), beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
Generally, children on vegetarian diets will eat sufficient amounts of fat, but those on vegan diets might not. This is particularly important for infants and toddlers who need higher amounts of fat for healthy cognitive growth and brain development. The biggest problem is often a lack of omega-3 fatty acids. Some plant-based food does contain omega-3 fatty acid precursors but not much of this is converted in the body.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
The only essential nutrient present exclusively in food of animal origin is vitamin B12. This vitamin is essential for cognitive development and therefore its supplementation is crucial. Vitamin B12 is also consumed through fortified foods if the child is a vegan (i.e. where the vitamin has been added to the food).
Milk and dairy products contain the largest amounts of calcium. If a diet does not include these products calcium fortified foods should be included. Plant-based foods also contain some calcium but they also contain substances which limit its absorption. Careful nutritional planning should be done by a professional if the child is a vegan.
Iron and Zinc
Although iron and zinc are available in plant-based foods, it is in a form which is much harder to absorb than from animal products. As such, children on vegan diets are generally recommended to eat as much as 80% more iron from plant sources than if they were on a less restrictive diet. This is particularly important for children who generally require higher amounts of iron to help their growth. Again, nutritional planning by a professional is important.
If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet and want your children to follow in your footsteps then you can feed them mostly the way you feed yourself. But you must make sure you speak to your pediatrician or a nutritionist to ensure that your child is getting sufficient vitamins and minerals, and supplement if not!
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