How vegetarian diets can be healthy for children

Parents who are vegetarians frequently wonder whether a vegetarian diet is a healthy one for children. Let me get to the root of the matter and plant a few ideas with you on this topic.

Do your homework

The key word in planning any diet for children is growth. Studies show infants and children can grow well on meatless vegetarian diets and even without some dairy products if they are placed on stricter vegan regimens. But you need to do vegetarian diet planning for your child working with your child’s health care professional and/or a nutritionist to make sure all the adequate nutrients are provided. That being said, the benefits of a vegetarian diet have been associated with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. So if you want your infant or child to be on a vegetarian diet, I have some suggestions.

Breastfeeding considerations

You should consider breastfeeding your child whether you are a vegetarian or not. But if you are a vegetarian, you need to review your diet with your child’s health care professional since it may be lacking in nutrients like vitamins B12, D, calcium, iron and zinc. If this is the case, supplemental medications may be recommended so your baby can grow on your breastmilk.

Sources of protein and other nutrients

As your baby gets older, they will need more protein in their diet. Nuts or foods with seeds like beans or peas can be good sources of protein but can also be choking hazards or cause an allergic reaction. Instead, protein for older infants may be obtained from soy milk if breast milk is not being used or soft soy foods like tofu. Older children can get their protein from eggs and dairy products if those foods are included in their vegetarian diet, and certainly from grains, cereals and vegetables like beans and peas. Iron and calcium can also be obtained from green leafy vegetables like broccoli, which can be eaten as baby foods or as a cooked or raw vegetable as your child gets older.

The bottom line is that vegetarian diets need careful, proper planning so please talk to your child’s health care professional or a nutritionist to ensure your child’s vegetarian diet will support adequate growth at all times and not cause problems like a vitamin or iron deficiency.

Hopefully tips like these will satisfy your appetite when it comes to considering a vegetarian diet for your child.


Lewis First, MD, is Chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.


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