Is it safe to feed my child a vegetarian diet?

Vegan and plant based diets are becoming increasingly more popular, with approximately 11% of the Australian population adopting a vegetarian diet. However, one major consideration for those who opt for a vegetarian, vegan, or plant based diet is “is it safe for my child?”  Children have very different nutritional needs than adults, with these needs changing often to accommodate their stages of rapid growth and development. 

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Infants, children and teenagers have higher energy and nutritional requirements than adults in relation to their body weight, making them vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. In particular, vegetarian children are at risk of not consuming enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, zinc and iodine.

Protein

Protein is essential for growth and the production of hormones. While proteins can be found in plant-based sources, there are very few that contain all 9 essential amino acids that our body can’t make on it’s own. Additionally, plant based protein aren’t digested as well as meat proteins, meaning that vegetarian children require an additional 10-30% protein each day. Plant based sources of protein include legumes, tofu, tempeh and soy milk.

Iron

The main nutrient that comes to mind when people think of a plant based diet is iron, which is essential for carrying oxygen around the body and development of the nervous system. While there are numerous plant based sources of iron, they are not absorbed by the body as efficiently and therefore, vegetarians need to eat around 1.8 times more iron than non-vegetarians in order to absorb the same amount of iron. Plant based sources of iron include legumes, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables. Eating foods high in vitamin C with meals will also help improve iron absorption.

Calcium

Children who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are less likely to meet their calcium needs, unless proper dietary planning takes place. You can find out more about the importance of calcium during childhood and 5 non-dairy sources of calcium here.

B12

Animal products are the only reliable source of B12, meaning that vegans and vegetarians have a much higher risk of developing a B12 deficiency. B12 is important for our cell turnover and maintenance of our nervous system. Deficiencies in young children can hamper growth and cause long-term developmental delays. Vegetarians can obtain B12 from dairy products and eggs if consumed regularly, however, vegans are likely to need B12 supplements.

Zinc

Zinc plays an important role in a number of metabolic and immune system functions. While zinc deficiencies are rare, children have considerably high zinc needs due to their rapid growth. Additionally, zinc requirements are thought to be 50% more for strict vegans, than for non-vegetarians. Plant based sources of zinc include wholegrain breads and cereals, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu and soy products.

Iodine

Iodine is an important part of the thyroid hormones which affect metabolism, growth and development. There is still not enough evidence to identify if children who consume a vegan or vegetarian diet are at increased risk of developing an iodine deficiency. However, it is an important mineral to keep in mind when evaluating and planning a vegetarian diet. Sources of iodine include iodised salt, fish, seafood, seaweed, bread and dairy.

As you can see vegan diets pose a significant challenge in ensuring the nutritional requirements of your child are met. Using an infant formula beyond 12 months of age can help prevent nutrient deficiencies. I highly recommend seeking advice from a nutrition professional such as a nutritionist or dietitian to assist with adequate meal planning to ensure your child is not missing out on any nutrients that are essential for their growth and development.

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Hi, I’m Aspen, a university qualified teacher and nutritionist. As one of seven kids, a mum and ten years teaching experience, I understand just how challenging mealtimes can be. That’s why I’m so passionate about giving families a range of strategies to reduce fussy eating and make mealtimes an enjoyable family experience. I also work with schools doing incursions, parent information sessions and canteen menu assessment.