Ask the Expert: Child Nutrition

The Physicians Committee

Ask the Expert: Child Nutrition

Q: Does a diet of only plant foods provide the nutrients a growing child needs?

A: Children raised on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes grow up to be slimmer and healthier and live longer than their meat-eating friends. It is, in fact, much easier to build a nutritious diet from plant foods than from animal products, which contain saturated fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children should avoid. As for essential nutrients, plant foods are the preferred source because they provide sufficient energy and protein packaged with other health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.  Eating habits are set in early childhood. Choosing a vegetarian diet can give your child—and your whole family—the opportunity to learn to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods.

Naturally, children need protein to grow, but they do not need high-protein, animal-based foods. Many people are unaware that a varied menu of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits supplies plenty of protein. The “protein deficiencies” that our parents worried about in impoverished countries were the result of starvation or diets restricted to very few food items. Protein deficiency is extremely unlikely on a diet drawn from a variety of plant foods.
Very young children may need a slightly higher fat intake than adults. Healthier fat sources include soybean products, avocados, and nut butters. Soy “hot dogs,” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, seasoned veggie burgers, and avocado chunks in salads, for example, are very well accepted. However, the need for fat in the diet should not be taken too far. American children often have fatty streaks in the arteries—the beginnings of heart disease—before they finish high school. In contrast, Japanese children traditionally grew up on diets much lower in fat and subsequently have had fewer problems with diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Parents will want to make sure their child’s diet includes a regular source of vitamin B12, which is needed for healthy blood and nerve function. Deficiencies are rare, but when they happen, they can be a bit hard to detect. Vitamin B12 is plentiful in many breakfast cereals, fortified soy and rice milks, and nutritional yeast. Check the labels for the words cyanocobalamin or B12. Children who do not eat these supplemented products should take a B12 supplement of 3 or more micrograms per day. Common children’s vitamins contain more than enough B12. Spirulina and seaweed are not reliable sources of vitamin B12.

The body also requires vitamin D, which is normally produced by sun on the skin. Fifteen to twenty minutes of daily sunlight on the hands and face is enough for the body’s skin cells to produce the necessary vitamin D. Children in latitudes with diminished sunlight may need the vitamin D found in multivitamin supplements or fortified non-dairy milks.

Good calcium sources include beans, figs, sweet potatoes, and green vegetables, including collards, kale, broccoli, mustard greens, and Swiss chard. Fortified soymilk and rice milk and calcium-fortified juices provide a great deal of calcium as well. In addition, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, excluding animal proteins, and limiting salt intake all help the body retain calcium.

Growing children also need iron found in a variety of beans and green, leafy vegetables. The vitamin C in vegetables and fruits enhances iron absorption, especially when eaten together with an iron-rich food. One example is an iron-rich bean burrito eaten with vitamin C-rich tomato salsa. Few people are aware that cow’s milk is very low in iron and can induce a mild, chronic blood loss in the digestive tract, which can reduce iron and cause an increased risk of anemia.

Dunham L, Kollar KM. Vegetarian eating for children and adults. J Pediatr Health Care. 2006;20(1):27-34.

Dos Santos Silva I, et al. Lifelong Vegetarianism and risk of breast cancer; a population-based case-control study among South Asian migrant women living England. Int J Cancer. 2002;99(2):238-244.

Riboli E, Norat T. Epidemiological evidence of the protective effect of fruit and vegetables on cancer risk. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 suppl):559s-569s.

McCarty MF. Vegan Proteins may reduce risk of cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disease by promoting increased glucagon activity. Med Hypotheses. 1999;53(6):459-485.

Q: How important is diet for young girls in families with a history of breast cancer?

A: The foods girls eat while in pre-school and grade school appear to have an important effect on breast cancer risk later in life. Researchers at Harvard University discovered that girls who eat more protein from animal sources and less protein from plant sources tend to reach menarche earlier. Younger age at first menstruation is connected with increased risk of breast cancer later in life. In addition, diet during puberty—while breast tissue is forming—also seems to have a significant influence on breast cancer risk in adulthood. Plant-based diets right from the start are essential for not only establishing healthy lifelong eating habits, but are also helpful in reducing breast cancer risk. 

Frazier AL, Ryan CT, Rockett H, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Adolescent diet and risk of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res. 2003;5(3):R59-64. Epub 2003 Mar 31.

Stoll BA. Western diet, early puberty, and breast cancer risk. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 1998;49(3):187-193.