Vegetarian diet in children: advantages and disadvantages

The Argentine Society of Pediatrics points out that, with the rise of vegetarianism in the population, the use of a vegetarian diet in children has also increased. The reasons can be health, economic, respect for animals or religious, among others.

In any case, it is important that parents take into account both the type of diet and the age of the child, to avoid nutritional imbalances.

In this sense, different pediatric societies around the world suggest that efforts be made to guide and educate on the care, vigilance and controls that must be taken in this type of nutritional approaches at a young age.

Impact of a vegetarian diet on children

To evaluate the impact of vegetarian diets on children, the different modalities must be considered. The inclusion or not of foods of animal origin affects the contribution of certain necessary nutrients, among which we find the following:

  • Ovolactovegetarians: they are allowed to consume eggs, milk and dairy.
  • Lactovegetarians: they can consume milk and dairy products.
  • Ovovegetarians: only eggs and derivatives are allowed as food of animal origin.
  • Strict vegetarians or vegans: include only plant-based foods. Others stricter are raw food and fructarians.

The less strict forms of vegetarians eventually include foods of animal origin, such as meat, chicken and fish. These are the semi-vegetarians and flex-vegetarians.

The American Academy of Pediatrics comments that, despite the little evidence on the growth of children with a vegetarian diet, the pediatrician must assess the type of modality that parents propose. Thus, the more rigorous the diet, the more vulnerable the infant will be to nutritional deficiencies.

A study by the Pediatric Society of Canada revealed that 2% of young Americans between the ages of 6 and 17 follow vegetarian diets. The team of specialists concluded that, good planning and attention to certain specific nutrients, allows you to maintain a healthy diet for any stage of growth.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the German Nutrition Society do not recommend strict vegetarian diets during childhood.

Vegetarian diets are restrictive in that they limit the intake of certain nutrients. Regardless, each pediatrician should assess the situation with the parents.

Also read: What is an ovo-vegetarian diet?

Advantages of a vegetarian diet in children

In the magazine The American Dietetic Association refer that there is a positive relationship between the vegan diet and health in the short and medium term. Let's see what its advantages are.

Cholesterol control

A study by McCarty confirmed that plant proteins, such as soy, promote mechanisms that regulate the synthesis of cholesterol and LDL receptors or cholesterol bad.

For this reason, vegetarian children have low levels of total cholesterol in the blood. In addition, they have a healthier weight for height than children with a varied diet.

May increase longevity

A review of vegetarianism in children concluded that healthy eating at an early age can increase life expectancy by preventing certain diseases.

In addition, vegetarians adopt better lifestyles over time, such as not smoking, not drinking alcoholic beverages, increasing physical exercise, and eating moderately.

Chronic disease prevention

Leitzman emphasizes that vegetarian diets are of great benefit in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases that have their origin in childhood, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, diverticular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and certain types of cancer.

Expert associations also agree that vegetarian diets from childhood can lower body mass index, the mortality rate from heart disease and cholesterol levels.

Source of phytochemicals

Roberta Larson's Food and Nutrition Guide highlights that vegetables are the main source of bioactive or phytochemical compounds with recognized health benefits, such as beta carotenes, anthocyanins, polyphenols, vitamin C and fiber.

Therefore, when children eat a vegetarian diet, they also eat functional foods that are disease-preventive in adulthood.

It can be part of healthy diets

The vegetarian diet in children provides fiber, complex carbohydrates, folates, carotenoids, vitamins and minerals necessary for the body. While strict vegetarians reduce the intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and proteins of animal origin, related to the development of diseases.

As explained by the Acta Pediátrica de México, fruits and vegetables are common in all vegetarian preparations and fall within the international recommendations to maintain good health throughout life.

However, different scientific societies and academies of nutrition and dietetics insist that the vegetarian diet in children must be well planned to meet your requirements, including teenagers.

Environmental benefit

In addition to the health benefits, the magazine Public Health Nutrition concluded that when meat is substituted for beans, the environmental impact is significantly reduced worldwide.

According to the team of experts, 10 times less water is needed to produce 1 kilogram of bean-based protein, 18 times less soil, 12 times less fertilizer, 10 times less pesticide and 9 times less fuel than for 1 kilogram of protein from beef. In addition, red meat generates 5 to 6 times more waste than white meat and eggs.

Disadvantages of a vegetarian diet in children

When the vegetarian diet is not controlled, there may be some deficiencies or excesses of care. Let's see in detail.

Excess energy consumption

In lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, the energy consumed comes from saturated fat contained in eggs, whole milk and dairy products. Refined and derived cereals, such as tortillas, pasta, breads and rice, among others, also provide many calories from starch.

Low gastric capacity

The volumetric capacity of children's stomachs is limited. In strict vegetarian diets a large amount of low energy density foods is required to meet the requirements.

Truesdell and Acosta indicate that, if not well planned, the vegetarian diet in children can lead to nutrient deficiencies that affect growth.

Excesses in the vegan diet

A strict vegetarian diet can maintain good health for adults, but not always for children. For example, in one review, Janet Hunt points out that excessive fiber intake can be double what is recommended for childhood.

This causes some minerals, such as iron and zinc, essential for growth, to be trapped by the fiber and its absorption is hindered.

As Zuñiga explains, an effect similar to that of fiber occurs with phytates, a type of salt that stores phosphorus in vegetables. It traps and prevents the absorption of essential micronutrients, such as zinc, calcium and magnesium.

On the other hand, the proteins of vegan diets are of lower quality and less bioavailable than those of animal origin. Like minerals, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.

The child's acceptance of vegetarian dishes is another factor to consider, although the habit is instilled from an early age.

Read also: Adopt a vegetarian diet without reducing nutrients

May affect anthropometric indicators

Some studies show that vegetarian children under 5 years of age have anthropometric indicators (weight and height) below the general population average.

Tips to avoid nutritional deficiencies

The Spanish Association of Pediatrics has issued a series of recommendations to avoid nutritional deficiencies in children who consume vegetarian diets, in addition to informing parents of the nutrients they should supplement.

Some tips are as follows:

  • Go to the pediatrician to evaluate the general conditions of the child and determine the advisability or not of the vegetarian diet.
  • Include a wide variety of protein foods of plant origin and combine them with each other. For example, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • It is recommended to consume non-heme iron source foods together with vitamin C sources to increase its absorption.
  • Use iodized salt as a source of iodine, some derived from cereals and seaweed.
  • Vegetarian diets are deficient in vitamin B12, so they must be supplemented orally, at least with a weekly dose.
  • Promote the use of whole grains, vegetable drinks enriched with calcium, tofu and sunflower seeds.
  • Eat foods fortified in vitamin D and a good daily sunbath.

A vegetarian diet in children will be adequate as long as it complies with the recommendations indicated by health specialists. Planning and using the necessary supplements will ensure good growth and development.