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Vegetarian and Vegan Diets in Childhood: Ensuring comprehensive nutrition without animal products

Vegetarian Diets in Childhood

Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet in childhood has gained popularity in recent years. Owing to rising concerns about animal welfare, the environment, and health, more and more parents are enabling their children to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet early in their life.

A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is nutritionally adequate and can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. A properly designed vegetarian, including vegan, diet can satisfy the nutritional needs of infants through adolescents and is appropriate for every stage of the life cycle.

In this blog, we will discuss vegetarian and vegan diets in childhood and how one can ensure comprehensive nutrition without animal products.

Also Read: What is the Difference Between Essential and Nonessential Nutrients

Definition of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

A vegetarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and excludes meat, including beef, poultry, fish, and other animal-derived ingredients like gelatin. A well-planned vegetarian diet helps improve heart health, aid in weight loss, and lower the risk of chronic diseases.

There are four main types of vegetarian diets:

1) Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian

The Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, and seafood but includes dairy products and eggs. The term ‘Lacto’ derives from the Latin word for milk, while ‘Ovo’ originates from the Latin word for egg. Thus, a lacto-ovo vegetarian would consume plant-based foods, dairy products, and eggs but avoid all forms of meat and seafood.

2) Lacto Vegetarian

Lacto Vegetarians omit meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs from their diet. However, they consume dairy products, making their diet distinct from the Vegan and Ovo Vegetarian diets. Lacto vegetarians rely on plant-based foods and dairy products for their nutritional intake.

3) Ovo Vegetarian

Ovo Vegetarians follow a plant-based diet that excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and dairy products but includes eggs. The inclusion of eggs mainly provides necessary protein and key nutrients absent in an entirely plant-based diet.

4) Vegan

The Vegan diet is the strictest form of vegetarianism. It excludes all animal-derived products, including dairy products, eggs, honey, and gelatine. Some Vegans also avoid non-food products derived from animals such as wool, leather, and certain kinds of soap.

While all these diets help with better health outcomes such as lower cholesterol levels, and reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, it is essential to ensure that there is intake of necessary nutrients. Vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are predominantly available in animal products, need to be adequately supplemented in a vegetarian diet.

Also Read: Top 9 Brain Foods for Studying

Key Nutrients to Monitor

The major nutrients essential for children following plant-based diets include

  • Protein: Meeting protein needs is possible on a vegetarian or vegan diet, as long as calories are not restricted. Protein-rich plant foods include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Iron: Iron intake for vegetarians should be higher than for non-vegetarians due to the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron in plant foods. Iron-rich foods, consumed with foods high in vitamin C for improved absorption, such as fruits and vegetables, can help meet these needs. Non-animal sources of iron include green vegetables, seeds and nuts, dry fruits and fortified cereals.
  • Calcium: Non-dairy sources of calcium include fortified plant milk and juices, high-calcium legumes, some dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified foods including cereals and bread.
  • Vitamin B12: Found only in animal foods, vitamin B12 may be a concern in vegan diets. Fortified foods or supplements can help meet daily requirements.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Primarily found in fish, obtaining sufficient amounts of these beneficial fats in a vegan diet can be challenging. However, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts can provide ALA, one type of omega-3 fat.
  • Vitamin D: Many of the foods highest in vitamin D come from animals. However, there are good sources of this vitamin that are vegan-friendly. Fortified Soya milk, mushrooms, fortified cereals, fortified almond milk, and fortified orange juice are some great sources of vitamin D for vegans.
  • Fibre: Plant-based diets are high in fibre and too much fibre can also get in the way of nutrients being absorbed. Offer a variety of high-fibre and low-fibre foods. This may include a mix of refined (white) and wholegrain (brown) versions of rice, breads and cereals.

Meeting nutritional needs

Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be lower in calories compared to other diets that include animal products. Hence, to help children meet their daily nutritional needs it is recommended that:

  • Children following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, consume a variety of calorie-dense foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados and whole grains to meet their nutritional needs.
  • Encourage regular snacking between meals to provide the extra calories.
  • Educate children about these diets and get them involved in meal planning and preparation. Ensure that meals are balanced with a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Seek advice from a healthcare practitioner to add Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D supplements to the child’s diet.

Also Read: Everything You Need to Know About Giving Your Child Non-Dairy Milk

Vegan Diet for babies and toddlers

Irrespective of the diet, for the first six months breast milk plus a vitamin D supplement provides all the nutrients a baby needs. If the baby is formula-fed, it is advised to use an iron-fortified formula until age one, and then switch to whole milk. Vegan babies should have iron-fortified soy formula until age two.

When starting solid food at around six months, it is advised to start with iron-rich foods such as tofu, legumes and baby cereals with added iron as first foods.

Nutritional needs are central to the decision for children to follow a plant-based diet. With proper planning, veganism or vegetarianism can offer an appropriate and healthy alternative diet for children, providing all the necessary nutrients and potentially lifelong health benefits.

However, it is always recommended that parents consult with a registered dietitian or a paediatrician for individualised advice to ensure optimal nutrition and healthy growth for their children.

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