Vegetarian and Vegan Diets: Are They Safe for Kids? - Promise
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Vegetarian and Vegan Diets: Are They Safe for Kids?

What is the difference between vegetarian and vegan diets?

Vegan and vegetarian diets are primarily plant-based, meaning all meals consist mostly of plant foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, with little to no animal products.

A person following a vegetarian diet may consume limited types of animal products. There are many types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-vegetarian: consumes dairy; does not eat meat, poultry, eggs or fish
  • Ovo-vegetarian: consumes eggs; does not eat meat, poultry, dairy or fish
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: consumes dairy and eggs; does not eat meat, poultry or fish
  • Pescatarian: consumes fish; does not eat meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs

A person following a vegan diet does not consume any animal products including meats, dairy, eggs, and seafood. This diet sometimes excludes honey and gelatin as well, depending on the individual’s decision.

Why do people choose to follow plant-based diets?

There are several reasons why someone may choose to follow a plant-based including religious reasons, health reasons, preferences or tolerances, environmental reasons and sustainability, and animal rights.

A few health benefits associated with plant-based diets include lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and decreased risk of constipation. While a plant-based diet may be helpful in achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, it is still important to follow age-appropriate portion sizes, especially for whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Are vegan and vegetarian diets safe for children to follow?

Vegan and vegetarian diets may seem restrictive; however, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognizes these diets as “appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle, including infancy, childhood, adolescence” as long as the diets are well-planned. It is important to note that following a plant-based diet typically takes more time to plan in order to meet daily nutrition needs, especially in the beginning. Including a variety of foods/ food groups throughout the day is a good way to ensure a balanced diet.

Animal products including meats, dairy, eggs and seafood provide certain nutrients that are needed by the body. When limiting or fully eliminating these foods, it is important to consume plant-based foods that provide these nutrients to prevent deficiencies. The chart below includes some important nutrients to pay attention to when following a plant-based diet. In some cases, certain nutrients may need to be supplemented, which can be assessed by your medical provider or registered dietitian.

Essential Nutrients

*Nutritional yeast is an inactive form of yeast that comes in the form of yellow powder/flakes. It can be used to add a cheesy flavor to food such as eggs, soup, salad dressing, or on top of cooked veggies. Nutritional yeast is a great source of vitamin B12 and other B vitamins.

**Your dietitian or medical provider can assess need for supplementation.

Is a plant-based diet right for my child or family?

If your child is interested in following a plant-based diet, be sure to discuss the reasons behind this decision and assist them in making healthy choices. Include your child in the planning and preparation of meals, especially during the transition to a plant-based diet. Meal planning may include taking your child to the grocery store and selecting recipes they are interested in trying!

If your child is a picky eater or does not currently consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, transitioning to a plant-based diet may limit their food selection even more.

Consider meeting with a registered dietitian for further guidance on how to appropriately follow a plant-based diet. A registered dietitian can assess your child’s individual nutrition needs. Additionally, you can help to educate your child on this lifestyle choice using reliable sources such as:

Mary-Catherine Perry, RD, LDN

About Mary-Catherine Perry, RD, LDN

Mary-Catherine Perry, RD, LDN, is a Clinical Dietitian in the Weight Management/Bariatric Clinic at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, Del.