Many people discourage raising children as vegetarians. Despite all of the naysayers, there are millions of parents who decide to raise their children from birth as vegetarians. Is that a safe decision?

Will the child get enough nutrients?

Many people who are against vegetarian and vegan diets for children claim that the child will not get a sufficient amount of nutrients. This is not necessarily accurate because most people in America have access to a variety of fruits, vegetables, and non-meat proteins.

Tara Todd, a registered dietician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital says of childhood vegetarianism, “It’s OK to be vegetarian as long as kids choose a healthy substitute for meat and will eat fruits and vegetables.”

It is recommended that parents meet with a dietician or nutritionist who does not object to a child being raised vegetarian. Discuss good plant-based sources of nutrients. A nutritionist can identify any nutritional gaps in the child’s diet. A vegetarian diet can be extremely nutritious. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that most vegetarian children consume more fiber and less cholesterol than their counterparts.

A balanced non-vegetarian diet should contain meat, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In a vegetarian diet, the only piece missing would be meat. Parents raising vegetarian children should focus on making sure their child gets protein and iron from non-meat sources. Soybeans, dark leafy greens, and most legumes are good sources of these nutrients. Healthy fats, which could be lacking in a vegetarian diet, can be found in nut butters and avocados.

Variety matters

Children need a variety of nutritious foods to thrive. With a little creativity, it is relatively easy to come up with a varied vegetarian menu for a child. This becomes extremely difficult if the child is allergic to foods like nuts, dairy, or soy. These foods are where some of the hardest to find (without meat) nutrients come from, and soy is used in lots of pre-packaged vegetarian foods. Allergy restrictions plus the restriction of being vegetarian may leave a child with a menu that is not diverse enough to be healthy. Some doctors who support a vegetarian diet for children feel that a vegan diet is too limiting for growing bodies.

Focus on calories

Vegetarians do not always get enough calories. Vegetables are extremely low on calories, and they make people feel full faster. The body of a growing child consumes caloric energy voraciously. For a child to get an age-appropriate amount of calories each day, unusually large portions of fruits and vegetables may be necessary. This can present a serious issue if the child is a picky eater or is the kind of child that rushes away from the dinner table. A child who does not get enough calories will not grow properly. If this goes on for too long, the child could suffer from malnutrition and be permanently stunted in growth.

Substance matters

Children, vegetarian or not, will only be as healthy as the substance of their diet. It is quite possible to be vegetarian and still be extremely unhealthy. Some vegetarians eat a diet that largely consists of bread and pasta. Eating too many of these carb-loaded, nutrient deficient foods will lead to weight gain and hyperglycemia. 

If vegetarian means taking a child to a fast food restaurant and ordering fries and a soft drink, rather than chicken nuggets, fries, and a soft drink, the child will lack nutrients and be at risk for childhood obesity. Especially for a growing child, a vegetarian or vegan diet needs to be focused on the presence of correct portions of nutrient-rich plants rather than merely the absence of meat.

Is it safe?

A child needs calories and nutrients, both of which can be found in a vegetarian or carnivorous diet. A parent who wants to raise his or her child as a vegetarian must plan nutritious meals and monitor the child’s growth. All parents have the same responsibilities.