I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14 years old, and when I had my daughter, she ate a vegetarian diet for the first few years of her life, as well. Some people worry that vegetarian children won’t get all the nutrients they need, but they certainly can, if they eat the right foods. In fact, the American Dietetic Association states that not only can vegetarians get all the nutrients they need, they usually have diets lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than meat eaters do.
According to registered dietician Maryann Jacobsen, vegetarian children can easily get ample protein. Some vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, including milk, all of which contain plenty of protein. Even vegans, who eat no animal products, can get all the protein they need, though. The Vegetarian Resource Group’s website lists a number of vegan protein sources, including nuts, nut butters, soy beans, soy milk, tofu, legumes, and sunflower seeds. Even vegetables and grains have some protein, although only small amounts.
Both animal products and plant foods contain iron; sometimes plant foods even have more iron than animal products. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website indicates that half a cup of spinach has more iron than three ounces of beef. So does half a cup of lentils. However, Maryann Jacobsen points out that iron from meat sources is absorbed more easily than iron from plant sources. She recommends serving foods high in vitamin C, like strawberries, broccoli, sweet red peppers, oranges, and cantaloupe, with foods high in iron to increase the absorption of iron. Good vegetarian sources of iron include soy beans, white beans, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
Children that consume dairy products probably get plenty of calcium. Vegan children can also get ample calcium, however. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website indicates that vegan sources of calcium include spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, kale, soybeans, fortified soy milk, and many ready-to-eat fortified cereals.
Maryann Jacobsen points out that vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products like meat and milk, so vegans need to take a B12 supplement. If your child eats a vegan diet, talk to his doctor or a registered dietician about how much B12 he needs to take and how often he needs to take it. Visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website to find a registered dietician near you. If your child drinks milk or eats other dairy products, he’ll probably get enough vitamin B12, but his doctor can order a simple blood test to make sure he’s getting enough if you’re concerned.
Like iron, zinc is better absorbed from animal sources than from plant sources. Vegetarians can still get enough zinc, however. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health website, good sources of zinc for vegetarians include fortified breakfast cereals, oatmeal, beans, chickpeas, and almonds. Milk, yogurt, and cheese also provide zinc for vegetarians that eat dairy products.
National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129137062. Raising Vegetarian Kids? Here Are Some Pointers.
The Vegetarian Resource Group. http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.php. Protein in the Vegan Diet.
Raise Healthy Eaters. http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2009/11/5-myths-about-raising-vegetarian-kids/. 5 Myths About Raising Vegetarian Kids.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/AppendixB.htm#appB3. Food Sources of Selected Nutrients.
Office of Dietary Supplements. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/. Zinc.