How to plan a vegetarian diet for a child

August 12, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

Vegetarian diets have become an increasingly popular option. Moving to a plant-based diet lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

Most people following a vegetarian diet can meet all their nutritional needs as long as they eat a wide variety of foods each day. However, as you eliminate animal foods from your diet, you need to include other foods that can supply the missing nutrients. So, what about children raised on vegetarian diets?

The key word in planning any diet for children is growth. Studies show infants and children can grow well on vegetarian diets that include milk, cheese and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.) When foods choices are further restricted, planning is haphazard, or children refuse key foods, it becomes more difficult to meet the special nutritional needs of growing children.

Vegetarian diets tend to be high in bulk and relatively low in calories. Because of their smaller appetites, children may not be willing to eat the quantity of foods needed to support good growth on a low energy/high-bulk diet. If their energy intake from carbohydrates and fats is too low, children will burn protein for energy, instead of using it for growth and repair of body tissues.


Nuts and seeds are dense sources of calories and protein. However, children may not adequately chew them, so much of their goodness may go undigested. Worse yet, they may choke on them if not carefully supervised. Nut butters generally are preferred to whole nuts and seeds for children younger than 5 years old.

A growing child needs adequate complementary protein over the course of the day. You can complement plant proteins by combining them with foods of animal origin, such as cheese and/or eggs. You also may combine legumes, including dry beans and peas, lentils, tofu and peanut butter, with grains or with seeds and nuts to provide complementary protein. Peanut butter sandwiches and bean burritos are examples of combining grains and nuts or grains and legumes.

Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian children may have difficulty meeting dietary recommendations for iron. Dry beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and dark-green leafy vegetables are important plant sources of iron. You can help increase the absorption of plant sources of iron by providing foods high in vitamin C at the same meal. Toddlers especially are at risk for iron deficiency, and the use of iron-fortified cereals is highly recommended.

Growing children need calcium to help produce strong bones and teeth. Milk and dairy products are important sources of calcium. Plant sources include calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified soy milk and juices, legumes and dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli and mustard or turnip greens.

Vitamin D is required for incorporation of calcium into bones and teeth and prevention of rickets. The best sources are sunlight, egg yolks and vitamin D-fortified milks, including soy milk.

Vitamin B-12 is found only in foods of animal origin. It is important to provide a vitamin B-12 supplement if no animal products are used. Soy milk often is fortified with vitamin B-12. Read the label to be sure.

Zinc is necessary for normal growth and development. The best sources of zinc are meats, seafood, and milk. Vegetarian children who consume milk and/or plenty of nuts and legumes probably receive adequate zinc. However, when the diet contains large amounts of whole grains, plant phytates may decrease the amount of zinc available for absorption and zinc deficiency may occur, causing loss of appetite and a poor growth rate.

Here are some factors for you to consider when planning vegetarian meals for your children:

* Follow the Food Guide Pyramid recommendations. Use eggs, dairy products, legumes, seeds and nuts in place of meats.

* Use vitamin D-fortified milk, or a vitamin D and iron-fortified soy milk.

* Offer some concentrated source of protein at each meal (eggs, cheese or milk).

* Use complementary vegetable proteins.

* To promote iron, use iron-fortified baby cereals throughout the toddler period; give a good source of vitamin C with at least two of the meals every day.

* Use whole grains only about half the time, enriched refined grains the rest.

* Use whole grains only about half the time, enriched refined grains the rest.

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For information on complementary proteins and the Vegetarian Food Pyramid, send a self-addressed, stamped (32-cent) business envelope to Cooperative Extension Service, Washington County Office, 1260 Maryland Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 21740. Mark the envelope "Vegetarian."

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

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