Vegetarian Nutrition

Vegetarian Nutrition and Deficiencies – reducing your risk of chronic illness

The term ‘Vegetarian’ is a choice where meat or meat products are not consumed as part of the diet; however there are a number of different styles of vegetarian eating ranging from simply avoiding red meat to completely removing all foods that contain animal products, known as Veganism. For the health of growing children it is a case of, the more restrictive the diet, the higher the risk of health problems, deficiencies and chronic illnesses.

A well planned Vegetarian diet can provide all the necessary nutrients a child needs for healthy growth, despite fears from many parents and health professionals. The key is making sure expert advice is sought in menu planning as a poorly balanced diet can lead to deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals and long term health problems. Vegetarian diets are generally high in fibre and low in saturated fats making them a healthy option for many Australian families, especially if they are vegetarians themselves.

Types of Vegetarian diets

Semi- vegetarian or Non red-meat- vegetarian

avoids red meat however will consume small amounts of chicken and seafood

Ovo-lacto- vegetarian

avoids meat, seafood and poultry however consumes eggs and milk products

Lacto-vegetarian

avoids meat, seafood, poultry and eggs however includes milk products

Ovo-vegetarian

avoids meat, seafood, poultry and milk but consumes eggs

Vegan

avoids all foods that contain animal products

Each type of diet has it’s pros and con, however the diet that needs to be most monitored is the vegan approach, as this has been linked with significant nutritional problems in some children. Particular attention should be placed in the following areas:

1. Energy/ Kilojoules

Some vegetarian diets may contain less energy in the form of calories or kilojoules important for growth, especially in the 1-5yrs age group. A good indicator that children are getting enough energy is their weight; if they are gaining appropriate weight then their diet contains adequate kilojoules. The kilojoules from meat need to be replaced using high energy foods such as avocado, oils, margarine, nut butters, nut meats, soy products, and of course dairy. A vegan diet needs an appropriate dairy replacement such as soy or pea milk, soy cheese and soy yoghurt.

2. Protein

Simply removing meat, chicken and fish from a child’s diet does not make it healthy. These are a great protein source and need to be replaced for proper muscle growth and development. Further removal of eggs and dairy means they are left with very little protein essential in supplying the building blocks for growth and repair. An essential replacement for these proteins come from the family of legumes which include baked beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and hommus, lentils, cannellini and butter beans, tofu and tempeh. Legumes should be thoroughly cooked through to help digestion and destroy toxins. If undercooked they can cause vomiting or diarrhoea. The more restrictions in a child’s diet, the more chance of nutrient deficiency. These high protein replacements need to be included at both lunch and dinner, as well as dairy, alternatives such as soy milk, soy yoghurt or vegan cheese can be offered throughout the day.

3. Calcium

An essential mineral for the development of healthy bones and teeth. The best source of calcium is dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt, cheese and custard. Removal of dairy requires a substitute such as calcium fortified soy or pea milk (check the label for calcium enriched). Rice, almond, cashew and oat milk that has been fortified with calcium is potentially another alternative however they are generally very low in protein and energy so cannot be used as a child’s only source of milk (substitution with these milks needs to be managed by a health care professional). Foods such as leafy green vegetables, some legumes, dried fruit and nuts may also supply very small amounts of calcium however they must be eaten in such large amounts to be effective.

4. Iron

This is another essential mineral important in building healthy immune systems and transporting oxygen around the body. In Australia, the prevalence of anaemia in children under the age of 5 years is about 8%, corresponding to over 100 000 preschool children. Iron deficiency is the largest contributing factor to anaemia in all paediatric age groups.[1]

Iron comes in 2 forms; Haem iron from meat, chicken and fish and non-Haem from plant foods such as legumes and tofu or fortified breakfast cereals. The absorption of haem iron is much higher, up to 30% better than non-haem. Improving the iron absorption from plant foods requires the addition of Vitamin C rich foods to the meal, found in fruit (oranges, mandarins, tomatoes) and vegetables (tomatoes, capsicum and dark greens such as baby spinach).

5. Zinc

Like iron, zinc is important in building a child’s immune system, hormones and skin. Rich zinc sources include fish and seafood and dairy. A vegetarian alternative is yoghurt, legumes, fortified cereals and nuts.

6. Vitamin B12

B12 is essential for building red blood cells for the blood supply, important for transporting nutrients and oxygen around the body. It is only supplied from animal sources so children need to take a supplement or eat foods that have been fortified with B12 such as fortified soy milk if they are Vegan. The common mushroom is the exception to the rule however a serve only supplies 5% of the daily requirement for B12 so is not an acceptable source for a child.

7. Vitamin D

The body makes Vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight however with most parents being sun safe keeping children out of the sun, wearing block out sunscreen and sun shirts, this may be a potential problem. This vitamin is important in converting calcium to an absorbable form in the kidneys, keeping bones strong and healthy. Vitamin D is also found in egg yolks, fortified milk and yoghurt and olive oil spreads and table margarine. A supplement may need to be prescribed by a healthcare professional if a child is at risk of vitamin D deficiency.

A Balanced Approach

A balanced diet is the most important factor for proper growth and development in the early years of life. Healthy diets including vegetarian, can supply a child with all their macro and micronutrients with a little care and menu planning. Health care professionals such as Dietitians and Nutritionists trained in the area of Paediatric nutrition are vital in helping parents provide all nutrients for their children for healthy growth.


[1] Paediatric and Neonatal Iron Deficiency Anaemia Guide, Guidance for Australian Health Providers, Dec 2017.


Special Thanks to Dietitian Kate DiPrima for her contributions to this article.

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