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Nutrition needs for vegetarians

Nutrition needs for vegetarians2018-02-14T14:22:34+10:00

Most dietary and medical experts agree that a well-planned vegetarian diet can actually be a healthy way to eat. However, special care needs to be taken if you or your child chooses this option, particularly if their diet doesn’t contain any dairy or egg products.

The principles of planning a vegetarian diet are the same as with any healthy diet – provide a variety of foods and include foods from all of the food groups. A balanced diet will provide the right combinations to meet nutritional needs, and, as with any specialised diet, you’ll need to adapt to your children’s changing nutritional needs as they grow.

Types of vegetarian diets

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians: eat no meat, poultry or fish, but do eat eggs and dairy products
  • Lacto-vegetarians: eat no meat, poultry, fish or eggs, but do eat dairy products
  • Ovo-vegetarians: eat no meat, poultry, fish or dairy products, but do eat eggs
  • Vegans: Exclude all animal foods, including eggs and dairy

Vegetarian eating for children

The main sources of protein and nutrients for infants are breast milk and formula, and from 6 months onwards, breastfed infants should receive iron from complimentary foods including iron-fortified infant cereal. Protein and energy dense vegetarian foods should follow next, including:

  • Pureed, mashed or cubed tofu
  • Pureed or mashed legumes including kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and baked beans
  • Full-fat dairy products like yoghurt, cottage cheese and grated cheese
  • Well-cooked eggs
  • Nut pastes, avocado, cooking oils or butter, which can be used to enrich your baby’s foods

The texture of your baby’s diet should gradually progress from pureed to mashed soft lumps and then to soft cooked finger foods, however it’s important that picky toddlers are still obtaining enough nutrient-dense foods and therefore calories.

Vegetarian eating for teens

Preteens and teens often voice their independence through the foods they choose to eat. One strong statement is the decision to stop eating meat. If it’s done right, a meat-free diet can actually be a good choice for adolescents, especially considering that vegetarians often eat more of the foods that most teens don’t get enough of – fruit and vegies!

A vegetarian diet that includes dairy products and eggs (lacto-ovo) is the best choice for growing teens as more strict vegetarian diets may fail to meet a teen’s need for certain nutrients including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D and B12.

Nutritional needs for all ages

Children of all ages who are vegetarian or vegan remove an entire food group (ie. meat and/or dairy) from their diets and therefore need to replace the nutrients that these foods provide with a plant-based source. These nutritional needs include:


An important mineral found in the blood,  absorption can be best obtained by combining the following with vitamin C rich foods like tomatoes, citrus, tropical fruits, berries and capsicum:

  • Legumes and pulses
  • Green leafy veges
  • Wholegrain breads and cereals
  • Nuts, seeds and their pastes
  • Eggs


An essential mineral for maintaining heart function and building strong teeth and bones, it can be found in:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Yoghurt, cheese and custard
  • Fortified soy milk and products
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soy beans and chickpeas
  • Almonds
  • Dried apricots and figs


Required for growth and development, it is also important for immunity and healthy skin, and can be found in:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Soy milk and soy products
  • Legumes including chickpeas and lentils
  • Nuts, seeds and their pastes
  • Wholegrains
  • Eggs

Vitamin B12

Essential for the development of red blood cells and the nervous system, B12 is only found in animal products and fortified products. Deficiency can have serious consequences for a growing child, however it is unlikely to occur when cow’s milk products and eggs are included in the diet. Fortified products include:

  • Some soy milks
  • Vegetarian meat alternatives


Plant-based foods are generally lower in energy than other foods, however important sources in a vegetarian diet include:

  • Avocado
  • Margarine and cooking oils
  • Full cream dairy products
  • Wholegrain breads and cereals


High quality proteins are found in animal products, soy products and in the seeds quinoa and amaranth. Other plant-based proteins are considered low quality because they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, however protein quality can be improved by eating a variety of plant based proteins throughout the day. For example:

  • Combine legumes with cereals: lentils with rice, hummus with crackers, baked beans on toast
  • Combine nuts with cereals: peanut butter sandwich, snack mix including crackers, nuts and dried fruit
  • Combine seeds with cereals: sesame seed bread roll, muesli with rolled oats and seeds

Essential fatty acids

Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with many health benefits including brain development and the protection of the body from heart disease. It can be difficult for a vegetarian diet to provide adequate amounts of Omega-3 as there are no directly plant-based sources, however, essential fatty acids can be found in:

  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Walnuts
  • Vegetable oils
  • Eggs

If you’re not sure your child is getting all the necessary nutrients, or if you have any questions about vegetarian diets get in touch with your family doctor, paediatrician or a registered dietician.

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