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Being vegetarian means different things to different people. Plant foods are the foundation of a vegetarian diet. Plant foods include bread and grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (such as dried beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. A healthy vegetarian diet includes foods from all of these plant food groups each day. There are different kinds of vegetarians depending on which foods are restricted.

  • Ovo-lacto vegetarians avoid all meat, fish and chicken and include plant foods, eggs and dairy food
  • Lacto vegetarians avoid eggs as well as meat, chicken and fish
  • Vegans avoid all animal foods and require a vitamin B12 supplement

Some people call themselves vegetarian when they eat no red meat but still eat chicken, fish or seafood. These people could be called partial vegetarians. Another group might call themselves ‘fish vegetarians’ as they eat plant foods and fish but no other meat or chicken.

Nutrition Issues

The more restrictive the diet the greater the need for careful meal planning, particularly for young children. Animal foods such as meat and dairy foods provide many essential nutrients as well as energy. If they are excluded, nutritious foods need to be substituted.

Getting enough energy (kilojoules)

Plant foods are nutritious but provide less energy and fat and more fibre than other foods. Small children with small tummies can easily become full before they have actually eaten enough food if they are eating only plant foods.

Young children have high energy and nutrient needs relative to their body size. The younger the child, the more fat they need in their diet. About half the calories in human milk come from the fat content. Young children need this fat for growth, brain development. Human milk also contains cholesterol. This is necessary for brain development and it is possible that it is an advantage that the body is used to dealing with cholesterol. This may contribute to lower blood cholesterol levels at an older age.

Vegetarian children therefore need to be offered foods that are nutritious sources of fat.  These foods include dairy foods, eggs, peanut and other nut butters, avocado, soy drinks fortified with calcium, tahini, oils , margarine and butter.

Young children need regular meals and snacks or mid meals as they can’t eat large enough quantities if they are only offered three meals a day.

Nutrients at risk

Calcium, iron zinc and vitamin B12 are the nutrients most likely to be missing in an unplanned vegetarian. Animal foods are the usual source of these nutrients so if these foods are restricted it is important to include other good sources.

Iron

Good vegetarian sources of ironLegumes such as baked beans, chickpeas, lentils
Iron fortified breakfast cereals – check the label to see if iron has been added
Wholegrain breads and cereals
Nut butters
Tahini
Milo®
Dried fruit

Iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as the iron in meat and chicken. To increase absorption:

  • Eat a food containing vitamin C with at each meal and snack. Good sources of vitamin C are citrus fruit, berries, kiwi fruit, rockmelon and  vegetables such as broccoli, capsicum, tomato, cauliflower
  • Don’t drink tea at meal times – tea contains tannin which decreases the amount of iron that is absorbed in the gut. There are a couple of tannin free teas on the market.

Young children who drink large amounts of milk are at risk of not getting enough iron. These ‘milkaholics’ fill up on milk and don’t have room for many other foods. Milk is a poor source of iron and the iron that is in milk is not well absorbed. So milk intake should be limited to 500mls a day.This is enough to meet their calcium needs. You can substitute cheese and yoghurt for milk if your child doesn’t like to drink milk.

Good vegetarian sources of calcium

Milk, cheese, yoghurt
Calcium – fortified soy drink (at least 100mg calcium/ 100mls drink)
Tofu made with a calcium setting agent  – check the label for calcium in the ingredients list

Some other foods have the reputation for being high in calcium. However compared with milk they only contain small amounts. Neither children nor adults can eat the volume of these foods required to get enough calcium.
In order to meet calcium needs young children need about 500mls or two glasses of milk a day. Some children don’t like milk so cheese or yoghurt can be eaten instead of milk.
If your child doesn’t like to eat dairy foods you could try:

Serving vegetables with a white sauce
Melting grated cheese on vegetables, baked beans, toast, rice or pasta
Frozen yoghurt
Ice cream – 2 scoops of ice cream has the same amount of calcium as half a small glass of milk. It would be difficult for a young child to eat enough ice cream as their only source of calcium – even those children that love it!

However if you still think your child is not getting enough calcium, they may need to take a supplement. It would be advisable to consult a dietitian to assess your child’s calcium intake and to give you suggestions for ways of increasing the intake of this important mineral. They can recommend a supplement with the appropriate amount of calcium if necessary. Many supplements include calcium in amounts that are not adequate for children.

Zinc

Zinc is found in the same foods as iron. So by including good sources of iron, you would also be getting good amounts of zinc.

Vitamin B12

is essential for normal development in young children. Reliable sources of this vitamin are only found in animal foods. So children following a vegan diet will need a supplement of vitamin B12 as a tablet. Alternatively, they can drink a soy drink that has vitamin B12 added. Once again, check the label.

Some people claim there is vitamin B12 in some plant foods. For example, the vitamin B12 in mushrooms would be from the manure they are grown in, not in the actual mushroom. It would be available if you didn’t wash or wipe it off before eating – not a tasty thought! The vitamin B12 in spirulina is not the kind that is absorbed by humans so once again not very useful. Some people claim that vitamin B12  can be made by the body by bacteria in the bowel. This is not a source of vitamin B12 because this vitamin can only be absorbed in the small intestine which is higher up than the large bowel. So we need to get it from our food.

REMEMBER

  • Planned vegetarian eating can provide adequate nutrition
  • Meals need to be planned to include good sources of iron
  • Children following a vegan diet need a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B12