Can a vegetarian diet affect my son's growth?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
We all need to have the right amount of calories and a good balance of nutrients to grow normally. You can find these in both animal and plant foods. But as you know, vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry or fish.

A well-planned vegetarian diet can meet nutritional needs and promote normal growth. As a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, your son eats plant foods along with dairy products and eggs. This is good. Not having enough calcium, vitamins D and B12 would be a problem for his bone growth.

We all need protein to build strong bones and reach our maximum growth. So it is especially important that your son eats a diet rich in protein. Dairy products and eggs are full of protein. Other good sources of protein for vegetarians include legumes, nuts and soy.

During the past 10 years, more and more American families are vegetarians. The different types of vegetarians are:
  • Vegans eat only plant foods, no eggs or dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat plant foods and dairy products, but no eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat plant foods, dairy products, and eggs
There can be health benefits. But be aware that there can also be nutritional deficiencies with vegetarian diets. If your son isn't growing at the expected rate, he may need to eat more calories each day.

Speak with your son's pediatrician or a nutritionist about your concerns. They can help you plan a vegetarian diet for your son that supports his growth and energy needs.
Eat, Play, and Be Healthy

More About this Book

Eat, Play, and Be Healthy

"Written by one of the world's top nutritional physicians, "Eat, Play, and Be Healthy" gives scientifically sound and kitchen-tested advice on creating lifelong healthy eating habits. This book is a...
Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics

A well-planned and nutritionally varied vegetarian diet should not affect your son's growth any differently than a non-vegetarian diet. In fact, a well-planned vegetarian diet can provide your son with a positive foundation in reducing risk for many chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Consult with a registered dietitian to ensure that your son is adequately meeting his nutritional needs through his diet.

Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics
A well-planned vegetarian diet shouldn't have any impact on your son's growth. Children of all ages can do very well on vegetarian diets, and there's no reason to assume a vegetarian diet will automatically be unhealthy for growing children. Parents just need to make sure the diet is balanced. A vegetarian diet doesn't guarantee health, either. It can be unbalanced, lacking in certain nutrients, or too heavy on sugar, sodium and processed foods. After all, potato chips and soft drinks are, technically, vegetarian. And it's not uncommon for a vegetarian child to hate vegetables.

Growth spurts throughout childhood are fueled by calories, protein and good general nutrition that provides plenty of vitamins and minerals. That's why it's important for vegetarian children of all ages to eat a healthy balanced diet.  

The first concern for most parents of vegetarian children is protein. Meat is high protein, so parents assume that eliminating meat can cause protein deficiency. Fortunately, most vegetarians include other high protein foods like eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Other high protein foods are:
  • tofu
  • soy milk and other soy products
  • alternative meats, like soy burgers
  • legumes (kidney beans, pinto beans, etc)
  • nuts and nut butters
If you include servings of 2 or more of these high protein foods at every meal, protein deficiency is unlikely.

Children also need calcium for growing bones. The best food sources are dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt. Other good sources include fortified soy milk, tofu, legumes and dark leafy green vegetables.

Iron is another consideration. Red meat is especially high in iron, so eliminating meat can impact intake. Unfortunately dairy foods are not especially high in iron. Be sure to serve foods like legumes, eggs, dark green vegetables and whole grains to boost iron intake. Fortified cereals and enriched flour will also contain iron.  

While iron, calcium and protein are especially important, all nutrients play a role in growth. And fortunately, plant foods are full of the nutrients a growing child needs. The key for parents is to offer a variety of foods and include 1-2 of those high protein foods at each meal.

Continue Learning about Vegetarian Diets

Where to Find the Best Plant-Based Proteins
Where to Find the Best Plant-Based Proteins
You don’t have to be a vegetarian (over 7 million folks in America are) to want to increase your intake of plant-based protein. But, it’s a great idea...
Read More
What is the vegetarian diet?
Dominique AdairDominique Adair
Vegetarianism includes a variety of plant dominant diets, from those that include only plant derived...
More Answers
5 Unexpected Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet
5 Unexpected Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet5 Unexpected Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet5 Unexpected Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet5 Unexpected Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet
Better digestion, lower heart disease risks and other surprising reasons to eat more fruits and veggies.
Start Slideshow
Lisa Oz’s Make-Ahead Chili
Lisa Oz’s Make-Ahead Chili

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.