Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe for Children?

Vegan children

Leigh-Anne Wooten MS, RDN/LDN, FAND

Registered Dietitian

Can you answer this trivia question in honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month?

True or False: A vegetarian diet does NOT provide enough nutrients for a growing child. Check out our latest blog to find the answer!

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, a diet that is very on trend right now and for good reason. It can not only be incredibly healthy for people but are also more sustainable for the environment. If you have kids though, you might be wondering if a vegetarian diet is safe for them. Can they get all the nutrition they need to grow and thrive? The short answer is, absolutely and it’s backed by science! Let’s dive in and take a look at what both the research and leading experts recommend. 

What Does the Research Say?

A recently published study of nearly 9,000 young children found that those following vegetarian diets (defined as avoiding meat but still including dairy and eggs) were, on average, of similar height as their peers who ate meat. They were also on par when it came to iron and vitamin D levels, two nutrients that are potentially harder to get on a vegetarian diet. Of note, the study did find that these children were more likely to be underweight, a metric that parents should be aware of but can absolutely mitigate through a well-planned eating pattern.

The Experts Weigh In

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agree with this study and further explain that, “a well-planned vegetarian diet is absolutely appropriate for people of all ages, including young children”. The key phrase that we keep hearing? Well-planned. A child can eat cookies, cakes, and chips all day long and technically be following a vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, this eating pattern is often high in excess calories, salt, and saturated fat and absent of many vital nutrients. A child can also be eating a limited diet of apples, cucumbers, and quinoa which again is vegetarian, but they are also still missing out on important nutrients and calories.

How then can a parent meet their child’s nutritional needs? By focusing on two things: variety and nutrient dense foods. This includes not only fruits and veggies, but whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds (like chia!), dairy and dairy alternatives (including SOW Chia Milk), and eggs. That being said, there are a handful of nutrients that parents should pay attention to ensure their kids are getting enough.

Nutrients to Focus On

While meat and animal products are often excellent sources of certain nutrients, these nutrients can be also be found in plants, if you know where to look. Here is a list of the most critical nutrients and the foods where they can be found:

Omega 3 fat (healthy fat): Chia seeds are the best source of plant omega 3’s followed by walnuts, flax, and hemp seeds.

Calcium: This nutrient is found in abundance in dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt as well as plant based alternatives that are fortified with calcium. Other plant sources include broccoli, soy, leafy greens like kale and bok choy, oranges, and CHIA!

Iron: There are plenty of plant iron sources including soy, lentils, beans, peas, nuts, seeds (like CHIA!), leafy greens, and other fortified foods like cereal. Just remember that the iron found in plants is not absorbed as well as iron from meat. To enhance absorption, try: 

  • Eating iron rich foods alongside vitamin C rich foods (vitamin C increases the absorption of iron!)
  • Using a cast iron skillet (small amounts of iron from the skillet actually leach into the food cooked in it).
  • Avoiding coffee, tea, and foods high in calcium while eating iron rich foods (These actually decrease the absorption.)

Zinc: Which can be found in legumes, nuts, seeds (like, you guessed it, chia!), and soy.

Protein: Contrary to popular belief, most vegetarians get enough protein each day. Sources include dairy products, eggs, soy, nuts, seeds (yep, including chia), legumes, and whole grains.

Vitamin B12: Which can be found in dairy, eggs, nutritional yeast, and fortified foods like cereal.

Vitamin D: Is also known as the sunshine vitamin, meaning your body can actually make this vitamin from sun light! However, most of us aren’t outside long enough, are wearing sunscreen, or the sun isn’t high enough in the sky for us to get enough vitamin D. Unfortunately, there vitamin D is not easily found in plants. The best sources include certain mushrooms and fortified dairy, dairy alternatives (like SOW Chia Milk), and cereals.

    As you can see, chia is a powerhouse providing many of the nutrients that can come up short in a vegetarian diet!

    The moral of the story?

    Vegetarian diets can be healthy for all ages. And, instead of getting worried about counting exactly how much of each nutrient you are offering your little one(s) each day, simply provide variety, include the foods listed above, and enjoy all the delicious creations that can be made from plants.

    Looking for some inspiration to entice your little vegetarians? Try these recipes, loaded with flavor and nutrition!:

    Chocolate Banana Brownie (made with chia oil)

    Chia Milk Rice Pudding