Can children get all the nutrients they need from a vegetarian diet?

One of the biggest myths surrounding vegetarian diets is that it’s tricky (or even impossible) to get all the nutrients you need, especially when it comes to children and their rapidly growing bodies. However, this isn’t the case. A well-planned plant-based diet can provide all the goodness children and teens need to grow and stay healthy and strong.  
 
Sanitarium dietitian Angela Saunders has been studying vegetarian diets for decades and is a leading expert on the subject. We asked Angela to share her insights on the nutrients children need and the best ways to get them from a vegetarian diet.
 

Iron

 
Iron is essential to a child's growth and development, including brain development. It helps move oxygen around the body and assists muscles to use oxygen.
 
Iron is found in legumes (think beans, lentils, chickpeas), iron-fortified foods (breads and cereals) tofu and tempeh, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, eggs, quinoa, amaranth grain, wholegrains and dried fruit.
 
Plant-based sources of iron (‘non-haem’ iron) tend not to be as easily absorbed by the body as animal sources of iron (‘haem’ iron). But there is a simple solution that is as easy as being clever with your food pairings. Eating foods high in vitamin C with foods that are high in iron will help your body absorb the plant iron. Adding strawberries to cereal will do it!
 

Calcium

 
Calcium is especially important for children to build strong bones and teeth. For younger children, their skeletal tissue is constantly growing meaning they need more calcium. It’s the same in teen years when puberty prompts growth spurts. Getting enough calcium to strengthen bones during these crucial growth years is also believed to help combat diseases like osteoporosis later in life.
 
There is an abundance of foods high in calcium, including milk, yoghurt, fortified soy milk, cooked soybeans/edamame, baked beans, almonds, dried apricots/figs, some green veggies (kale, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens) and other fortified foods like nut milks and some cereals.
 
There are things you can do to increase calcium absorption too. This includes limiting salt intake and getting enough vitamin D. Enjoying after school smoothies in the backyard sounds like a good plan. Check out some of our delicious and easy-to-make smoothies here.
 

Vitamin B12

 
Vitamin B12 comes from animal products. When following a vegetarian diet, you and your children can generally get enough from dairy foods, eggs, and foods fortified with B12 like plant milks, veggie burgers and sausages and even Marmite.
 
B12 is needed for cell division, the formation of red blood cells and maintenance of the nervous system - so another nutrient that’s crucial through those years of growth spurts.
 

Zinc

 
It’s important that young people have adequate zinc to recover from playground tumbles and grazes, as it also helps keep their immune systems healthy.
 
Food sources of zinc include legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, eggs, cheese, cow’s milk and soy foods.
 
Cooking methods that include soaking, heating, sprouting and fermenting all enhance the absorption of zinc from plant foods. Soaking legumes before cooking or using canned legumes mean zinc is more available.
 

Protein

 
Given that protein is made up of ‘building blocks’ (amino acids) that bodies use to make muscle and bone, it’s no surprise this it’s another crucial nutrient for children and teens. Protein is important for many essential processes in the body including growth and repair of all cells, formation of enzymes and hormones, normal functioning of muscles and nerves and immune protection.
 
While protein is often associated with meat there are plenty of plant sources of protein. High protein foods include legumes/beans (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, etc.), soy foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, soy yoghurt), eggs, nuts (nut butters) and seeds, dairy foods (milk, yoghurt and cheese) and wholegrains such as quinoa, wheat and brown rice. Even vegetables like potatoes provide protein. By eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day, it is easy to meet protein needs.
 
Try to include some protein rich foods with every meal. They are also important sources of other nutrients like fibre, iron, zinc and phytonutrients. And they help meet your child’s energy needs.
 
Try these delicious plant-based meal ideas:
 
Young children have small tummies and so get full quickly. To help ensure they get adequate nutrients from the food they eat, encourage your child to eat regular meals and healthy snacks throughout the day.
 

Breakfast

 

Lunch

 

Dinner

 

Snacks

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