Are you and your family vegetarian or vegan? Ever wondered what the nutritional issues are for vegetarian/vegan children? What is the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan diet? Read on for answers to these and other questions!
What is the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan?
A vegetarian does not eat any meat, seafood, poultry or meat products but still includes dairy products and eggs.
A vegan does not eat any animal products of any kind. Vegans do not eat any meat, seafood, poultry as well as no dairy products and no eggs.
Is it safe for a young child to be vegetarian or vegan?
The first thing to say is that vegetarian and especially vegan diets, require careful planning and thought to nourish a child adequately for normal growth and development. But if they are planned carefully, they can both be nutritionally adequate for young children. If you are planning a vegan diet for your toddler, I would recommend the help of a Registered Dietitian.
Are there any health benefits to being vegetarian / vegan?
There are many health benefits/advantages to being a vegetarian or vegan for an adult such as lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels and lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower overall cancer rates.
What about the growth of children on vegetarian or vegan diets?
Studies have shown that the growth of vegetarian children is comparable to children who include meat in their diets. Some studies have shown that vegan children are slightly shorter and lighter than meat-eating children but their growth is still within normal ranges. It is important to provide sufficient calories (energy) as well as protein, for vegan children in order to promote healthy growth and development.
Vegan diets can be bulky and high in fibre, which can make toddlers tummies full up without obtaining sufficient calories. Including nutritious foods such as avocados, vegetable oils, seeds, nut butters and pulses can help increase the energy density of vegan diets for children.
What nutrients could be at risk in vegetarian/vegan diets?
Protein needs can easily be met if children eat a variety of plant foods containing protein such as pulses (peas, beans, lentils, soya), grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, pasta, bread, millet, buckwheat, etc), nuts, nut butters and meat substitutes such as quorn or soya products. Variety is the key!
Iron intakes of vegetarian and vegan children have been found to be similar to meat-eating children. However, the iron that is found in plant foods is non-haem iron, which is not as well absorbed as the iron you find in meat (called haem iron). Phytates found in wholegrain cereals and substances in tea can also inhibit the absorption of iron.
To improve the absorption of non-haem iron, include plenty of sources of vitamin C such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Good vegetarian and vegan sources of iron include whole or enriched grains, fortified cereals, legumes (beans and lentils), green leafy vegetables and dried fruits.
See my previous post on ‘Iron deficiency’ for further information.
As we all know calcium (and vitamin D) is important for growing bones and teeth. This mineral is not usually a problem in vegetarian diets as milk and milk products are included. However, studies have shown that this nutrient can be insufficient in vegan diets.
Care should be taken to offer a variety of non-dairy calcium sources such as fortified non-dairy milks (try coconut, hazelnut, almond or oat milks fortified with calcium), fortified juices, tofu, calcium-fortified soya desserts, dried figs, baked beans, sesame seeds, hummus and some nuts such as almonds, brazil nuts and hazelnuts (remember to watch young children with whole nuts as they are a choking hazard!).
Green leafy vegetables can also be a non-dairy source of calcium but they can contain a substance called oxalate, which inhibits the absorption of calcium. Low oxalate vegetables include kale, spring greens and okra.
In some cases, a calcium supplement may be required – speak to a Registered Dietitian if you are unsure.
This vitamin is ONLY found in animal products and an unsupplemented vegan diet will be deficient in this vitamin. Vitamin B12 is vital for the healthy functioning of your nervous system, formation of red blood cells and for your body’s metabolism to function properly.
Vegan children should use foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take vitamin B12 supplements. Fortified foods include meat substitutes, some non-dairy milks (eg. Koko coconut milk), yeast extract and some breakfast cereals.
Iodine is an essential micronutrient but not one you often hear about. It is only needed in tiny quantities (50 – 130 micrograms per day, depending on the age of the child), but it has an essential role to play in helping our bodies to make thyroid hormones. Iodine is also essential in pregnant women to support foetal brain and neurological development. Iodine is found in dairy products and also in sea fish and shell fish. For this reason, vegan diets can be very low in iodine (dairy-free diets can also be low in iodine). Check with your healthcare professional, as some children may need to take an iodine supplement, but be careful as very high intakes of iodine can be harmful.
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