Is it OK to Let My Kids Go Vegetarian or Vegan?

Baby eating green vegetables
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Healthy children don't need to be vegetarian or vegan, but they certainly can be. 

Vegetarian and vegan diets are variations on the theme of optimal eating for health (that is, a plant-predominant diet). There are whole cultures that have been vegetarian or vegan for many generations, and their children tend, if anything, to enjoy better health than most in the developed world—not worse. 

Vegetarianism in childhood has also been associated with timely achievement of all developmental milestones and higher average IQ.

 A strictly vegan diet does leave some nutrient gaps, though, so both a well-balanced approach to food choice and judicious supplementation is warranted. 

A vegetarian diet that includes dairy and/or eggs can be complete without supplements. The common concern about protein is misguided. Vegetarians and vegans with balanced diets get more than ample protein from plants, and most Americans currently get far more than they need. While no single, commonly eaten plant food provides a perfect distribution of essential amino acids (although some beans, such as soy, are very close and provide all essential amino acids), combinations of plant foods do so quite readily. 

Here’s further input from council members of the True Health Initiative:

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD
Co-founder and Strategic Director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity

There is no doubt whatsoever that vegan and vegetarian diets can be adequate for children.

With the exception of vitamin B12 (which must be supplemented—no exceptions), plant-based foods offer all the nutrients children need. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are not just nutrient dense, they also offer antioxidants and phytonutrients—health-promoting compounds that are absent from animal-based foods.

Protein is abundant in our food supply and plentiful in plant-based foods (a half-cup of beans offers six grams; a baked potato contains five grams, and a quarter cup of peanuts provides seven grams). Calcium is not only fortified in plant-based milks, it is also available in a highly absorbable form in leafy greens like kale, broccoli, and bok choy. 

The key is to have a foundation of whole, plant-based foods. After all, toaster pastries, soda, French fries, and cookies are vegetarian or vegan-friendly, but that does not make them health foods.

Joel Kahn, MD
Clinical Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), Wayne State University School of Medicine

Yes, kids can go vegetarian or vegan. In fact, a properly balanced vegan or vegetarian diet is an advantage. The American Dietetic Association states that "well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes." 

Currently, 17 percent of children in the United States ages 2 to 19 are obese.

That’s 12.7 million children and adolescents…and rising. The American Heart Association measured ideal health in children and found that nearly all the children in their study (about 91 percent) scored poorly on dietary measures. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Neal Barnard, MD, commented on plant-based diets for children, saying: 1) Vegan diets are safe for all stages of life. 2) Vegan diets are more likely to meet recommendations for servings of fruits and vegetables. 3) Vegan diets promote healthier hearts, even in children. 4) Vegan diets promote lower rates of type 2 diabetes mellitus and obesity. So, the clinical support is there.

Virginia Messina, MPH, RD
Author, "Vegan for Life"

Parents should absolutely let kids give vegetarian or vegan diets a try if they’d like to. Granted, there are some challenges to feeding vegetarian children in non-vegetarian families, but there are also a number of benefits to eating this way.

Vegetarian kids tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and have higher intakes of certain nutrients like vitamin C, folate, and fiber. When a child goes vegetarian, other family members are likely to expand their menus to include more healthful plant foods too. And parents can take pride in a child who cares about the environment or has compassion for animals, should that be their motivation for adopting such a diet.

While it’s important to identify good sources of calcium, protein, and vitamin B12 for vegan kids, it’s increasingly easy to do so. Most plant milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Many also have added vitamin B12. Kids can easily meet protein needs with foods like veggie burgers, tacos, peanut butter, and soymilk. Children can thrive on a vegetarian diet while learning to enjoy a range of new healthful plant foods. 

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD
Nutrition Expert

Vegetarian and vegan diets are plant based and contain most of the nutrients needed for growth and development. However, depending on their dietary patterns, nutrient gaps may need to be met with dietary supplements.

Eating a plant-based diet close to the earth (that is, not containing too many overly processed foods), along with eggs and dairy, is complete nutrition and there is no need to supplement. Including dairy is one of the best ways to ensure your child will get enough calcium and vitamin D for strong bones and teeth. However, kids can be finicky, and I’m a firm believer in a once daily multivitamin mineral to provide nutritional insurance.

A vegan diet can be just as healthy but requires more planning. When you eliminate animal products, you need to make sure the diet is adequate in protein, fat, calories, calcium, iron, and vitamins B12 and D.  Because a vegan diet is rich in plant foods, some children may have difficulty with the amount of fiber it contains. I would suggest visiting a registered dietitian to make sure your child’s diet is complete.

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