As most people know, being a vegetarian means eating little or no animal based foods. Here there are different types: lacto vegetarians and vegans, i.e. the strictest form.
The consequences for the child’s healthy growth can be varied.
Lacto vegetarian nutrition – Iron is key
As part of the lacto vegetarian nutrition, the consumption of milk and dairy products is permitted. In some cases even eggs are allowed. If complemented with a balanced nutrition combining whole grain, potatoes, vegetables and fruit, this can make up an overall healthy menu that should cover the nutritional needs of most age groups. In this ‘less strict’ form of vegetarian nutrition, the only likely deficiency is that of iron. The bio-availability of iron absorbed from vegetable sources is significantly lower (only about 2% - 5%) than that from meat sources. Choosing vegetables that have particularly high iron contents can prevent this. These include whole grain foods, pulses as well as certain vegetables and salad types. Increasing the chances of its efficient absorption can further prevent iron deficiencies. This is done by combining iron ingestion with that of vitamin C. Here there’s no need to consider food supplements as there’s plenty of vitamin C rich fruit varieties.
Vegan nutrition – Potential issues with nutrient supplies
Strict vegetarian nutrition strictly discards non plant based foods. This is likely to increase the risk of not sufficiently meeting the nutritional and energy requirements of the growing child.
The lack of milk is particularly problematic. Milk and dairy products play a key role as calcium carriers, a mineral that is extremely important during growth periods and the development of healthy bones.
Still problematic, but slightly less so, is the adequate supply of Vitamin B, that can mainly be found in milk, dairy products or meat. However, whole grain and some vegetable varieties are good sources.
The main issues however is with the sufficient supply of quality protein, especially since animal protein has a higher bio-availability than plant based protein. This is because animal based protein having a rather similar composition to the protein in the human body. The protein requirement for infants is particularly high, given the accelerated growth. There is therefore an increased risk that strictly vegan infants and toddlers with limited protein supplies will experience growth disturbances.
Ideological principals with regards to nutrition are a complicated topic, especially when applied to children. There is no denying the fact that completely avoiding animal based foods is likely to lead to some kind of nutritional deficiency. It should therefore not be recommended to put infants and young toddlers onto strictly vegetarian diet plans. This also applies to mothers during pregnancy and lactation. As with everything, a balanced nutrition including vegetable and animal based products is likely to form the most complete nutrition. If a family insists on living a fully vegetarian lifestyle however, parents will need to assure the sufficient supply of some critical nutrients, particularly iron and proteins.