“… a well-balanced vegetarian diet can provide for the needs of a growing child and adolescent …” Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat no animal products, except dairy products and eggs. Vegans eat no animal products. Macrobiotic diets may include animal products, but are made up of grains, legumes, and vegetables.
Plant foods can include all essential amino acids for healthy adults. Since plant proteins are less digestible, protein intake should be increased by 30% to 35% up to age two, 20% to 30% between ages two and six, and 15% to 20% above age six. Soy protein digests as well as animal protein, while wheat protein is 50% less usable than animal protein. Major plant proteins are in legumes, cereals, nuts and seeds, as well as nut and seed butters.
Vegans and lacto-ovo-vegetarians require 1.8 times the normal amount of iron because of reduced bioavailability as compared to meat. Children need adequate iron since iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in children. Iron sources are iron-fortified cereals, grains, dried beans and peas, and supplements. Dietary fiber, phytates, and tannins reduce iron absorption.
Zinc is 50% derived from animal products in omnivores (people who eat all foods). Vegetarian diets contain phytates which reduce zinc absorption. Mother’s milk contains adequate zinc up to the age of 7 months. Strict vegans should get 50% more zinc than omnivores, though zinc deficiency is rare. Good sources of zinc are legumes, nuts, yeast-leavened bread, and fermented soy products. Fermented foods and sprouted seeds and grains improve zinc availability.
Strict vegans may receive too little dietary calcium. The calcium content of mother’s milk from vegans is normal. After weaning, fortified soy products, cereals, juices and leafy vegetables are advised. Low oxalate greens (bok choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, and collards) are good sources of calcium. Vegan and vegetarian children, as well as adolescents may need calcium supplements.
Vegan children get less fat than others, but their growth seems to be little affected. Their diets are reduced in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) (found in fish, seafood, and eggs). They can eat large amounts of sea vegetables and algae. Vegan adults often have low DHA and EPA. Large amounts of linolenic acid (flaxseed oil, canola oil, walnut oil, and soy products) can be converted to DHA and EPA. Microalgae DHA supplements are available.
Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians get B-12 from eggs and dairy. Mother’s milk from strict vegans can be deficient in B-12, and their babies and older children should have supplementation or fortified food (B-12 fortified soy formula, cereals) or yeasts and nut beverages). Vegetarian diets are high in folic acid (folate) which helps prevent anemia, but does not protect the nervous system from B-12 deficiency.
Vitamin D can be deficient in vegan diets. In Canada, with limited sunlight, all breastfed infants should be supplemented with vitamin D. Commercial milk is supplemented. Strictly vegan children and infants should be supplemented with D-2 (non-animal vitamin D). Sun exposure to the face and hands for 20-30 minutes three times a day is sufficient for light-skinned children. (Pigmented skin and sun-screens reduce the benefit of the sun.)
Vitamin A is found only in animal products. Strict vegans can convert carotenoids (found in yellow and orange vegetables, leafy green vegetables and fruits) into vitamin A.
CONCLUSION: Adequate intake of vitamins and minerals is possible in vegan and vegetarian children through careful planning.
NOTE: Phytates are not digestible in the human body and block absorption of minerals. Tannins are found widely in plants, red wine and fruit.
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