Providing children with a well-balanced diet is important for growth, wellness, and development. Some parents follow special diets due to religious beliefs, ethical values, or sustainability. Many parents want to know if it's safe and healthy to raise their children on a special diet. For example, if you are a vegetarian, can your child also be a vegetarian? Depending on the diet, the answer is yes. But there is a caveat; the diet must be created to ensure that the child is receiving all the nutrients needed for adequate growth and development.
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.1
Vegan, Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Flexitarian Diets
There are small differences in all these types of eating plans. Vegan diets exclude all animal products, including dairy and eggs. The restrictions of vegetarian diets can vary. Most vegetarian meal plans exclude all animal meat products but allow animal byproducts like milk and eggs. A pescatarian diet excludes all animal products but permits the consumption of fish. Furthermore, a flexitarian diet places its emphasis on plant-based foods, while also allowing limited quantities of animal products, such as meat and dairy.
Eliminating certain food groups means that you must pay closer attention to specific nutrients in order to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Key Nutrients That Must Be Considered for Success
Plant-based meals provide a ton of antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients that are important for health. However, if you are excluding all animal products, there are certain nutrients that one must pay close attention in order to ensure that their children are developing adequately both mentally and physically. The exact amount of nutrients your child needs will depend on their age, height, weight, and activity level.
Be certain to always discuss their exact nutrient needs with their pediatrician or another a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition.
Calories provide energy and are critical for growth and development. If your child is eating large quantities of raw foods, it can often be hard to achieve their caloric needs. To avoid this, offer a variety of cooked vegetables that are prepared with healthy fat, such as olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, etc.
Vegetarian meal plans are oftentimes low in fat because they do not include animal products. Fat is an important nutrient in development, especially during the very early stages of life. Essential fatty acids are critical components to brain and retinal development.
In addition, eating fat is important for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, children ages one to three years old should be eating roughly 30% to 40% of their calories from fat, while children ages 4 to 18 years of age should receive around 25% to 35% of their calories from fat. 2
You should include a variety of fat in your child's meal plan. Nuts and nut butters, like almond butter, peanut butter, sun butter, fatty fish, like salmon, olive oil, avocado, and hummus. Full fat, fortified soymilk, or full-fat cow's milk can be an option after the first year of life.
Young children need to consume roughly 5% to 20% of calories from protein, while older children need to consume around 10% to 30% of calories from protein.2 Whole grains, milk alternatives, nut butters, and legumes can provide sufficient amounts of protein. It has been suggested that children who follow a vegan diet may need additional protein to meet their needs, likely because of the differences in protein digestibility and amino acid composition.1 Recommendations of 30% to 35% more protein for one to two-year-old vegans, 20% to 30% more for 2 to 6 year old's, and 15% to 20% more for children older than 6 years have been suggested.1
It is always advised to discuss your child's needs with your pediatrician to ensure adequate intake.
Iron is a key ingredient to enzymes and protein. It also carries and stores oxygen. Iron is particularly important during childhood because growth accelerates the process of storing and carrying oxygen.
There are two different types of iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron, which is found primarily in animal products is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. This does not mean that you cannot achieve iron needs by excluding animal products, but it does mean that you'll have to pay closer attention to this nutrient. Foods that are rich in non-heme iron include beans, iron-fortified cereals, oatmeal, leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens, raisins, and enriched bread.
To increase non-heme iron absorption, add foods that are rich in vitamin C to meals. These include broccoli, cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, lemon, papaya, pineapple, peppers, potato, and strawberries. For example, if you are serving your child rice and beans for dinner, add some peppers or freshly squeezed lemon on top or provide them with a serving of fruit on the side.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, "While dietary factors may limit the absorption of iron and zinc, deficiencies of these minerals are uncommon in vegetarian children in industrialized countries. Iron and zinc status of children on very restricted plant-based diets should be monitored. Supplemental iron and zinc may be needed in such cases."1
If you are concerned that your child isn't getting enough iron, ask your pediatrician if they should be taking a supplement.
Humans need constant zinc intake because we have a limited ability to store it. Zinc intake is particularly important for children as it supports normal growth and immune system development. Mild zinc deficiency has been associated with growth delays.3 Because zinc is found largely in animal meat, it will be important to provide other sources.
Food sources include fortified cereals (amounts vary), shellfish, such as crab and clams, beans such as chickpeas (which are used in making hummus), soybeans, sunflower seeds, cashews, milk, and cheese.
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin for DNA synthesis, brain development, and cognitive function. Inadequate intake of vitamin B12 during early childhood has been associated with adverse child health problems, including impaired brain development.4 The main sources of vitamin B12 include animal food sources such as meat and dairy products like cheese and milk.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, "Vitamin B-12 intake of vegan infants and children should be assessed, and fortified foods and/or supplements used as needed to ensure adequacy." 1
Alternative sources of vitamin B12 include fortified nutritional yeast, certain fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milk, eggs, and shellfish. Discuss your child's dietary intake with a health care provider to see if they need to supplement with vitamin B12.
Calcium is an important nutrient to the structure of bones and teeth, as well as normal muscle contraction. The amount of calcium a child needs will increase as they get older. If your child is not eating dairy, you will need to pay closer attention to calcium intake, as dairy sources contain the highest amounts.
Alternative foods that are rich in calcium, include calcium set tofu, calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as almond milk and soymilk, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale calcium-fortified juice and cereals, beans, and whole grains.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that aids in the absorption of calcium for bone mineralization. It also plays a role in the prevention of chronic disease. 5 Special attention should be paid to this vitamin because it isn't found in many foods and, for those children on restricted diets who are not eating dairy, this can be a problem. Supplementation may be needed especially because sunlight is not always a reliable source of vitamin D. This is due to sunscreen use, time spent indoors, higher altitudes, and winter months. Discuss with your physician if your child needs vitamin D supplementation.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all infants and children, including adolescents, should have a minimum daily intake of 400 IU of vitamin D (in the form of a supplement) beginning soon after birth.6 Sources of vitamin D rich foods include salmon, tuna, cod, fortified orange juice, milk, soymilk, evaporated milk, fortified cereals, rice milk, egg, and mushrooms.
Some children, particularly those that are on a very restrictive diet, may need to take certain supplements. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that the iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 status of children on very restricted plant-based diets should be monitored. 1
Common Dietary Restrictions
Some children may need to follow a special diet due to allergies or intolerances. Food intolerance is different from a true food allergy. A food allergy occurs when the body has an immune response to the protein in the offending food. Symptoms can result in hives, wheezing, rash, itching, stuffy nose, itchy or teary eyes. Some people with food allergies can have a serious reaction called anaphylaxis. When a person has a food intolerance, there is no immune reaction; instead, they typically will experience a digestive issue in response to a specific food.
Whether or not your child has a food allergy or food intolerance, they may need to avoid certain foods, such as dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. In order to rule out food allergies verse food intolerances your child will have to have a medical workup by their pediatrician or allergist.
For those children with lactose intolerance, dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream may need to be avoided. Tolerance to milk and milk products can be variable. Sometimes limiting will be enough whereas for others, avoiding altogether will be necessary. Your pediatrician may recommend lactose enzymes to relieve symptoms. When limiting or avoiding dairy, it will be important to find alternative sources of calcium, vitamin D, protein, vitamin B12, and fat. Rice milk is usually low in protein and fat so that may not be the best choice unless it is considered the only option.
Celiac disease is a disease that involves the villi of the intestines. People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, a protein found in certain foods such as wheat, rye, barley and some oats. Ingestion of gluten and other products that contain gluten can damage the intestines and cause malnutrition. Gluten can also be found in medicines, vitamins, lip balm. It's important to meet with a registered dietitian to ensure your child is receiving adequate nutrition and avoiding all problematic foods.
Helping Your Child Cope with a Restricted Diet
Social norms can be a challenge for children. If your child has a restricted diet, they may feel segregated from their peers even if their restriction was voluntary, as opposed to medical. The best way to deal with this is to continue to educate yourself and your child.
They should understand that sometimes people must follow special diets because their bodies are unable to tolerate certain foods, while others choose to eat or restrict certain foods because of their beliefs. Learning how to respect people's choices and beliefs is a way of life and this can be a good starting point.
A Word From Verywell
Feeding your child adequately is important for growth and development. Whether you are choosing to feed your child a special meal plan, they've decided to make the switch on their own, or they have a medical condition which forces them to eliminate certain foods, they can achieve their goals if certain nutrients are kept in mind. Children have different nutrient needs throughout their lifetime so meeting with a medical professional, like your pediatrician or registered dietitian who specializes in pediatrics is an important part of this process.