Nutritional deficiencies in a vegetarian diet
Protein is vital for tissue building and repair in the body.
- Proteins are made up of amino acids. All animal proteins are complete because they contain all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein.
- The only plant food that has all the amino acids needed to make up a complete protein is soy – it is the only complete vegetable protein.
- All other plant foods only contain some of the amino acids needed to make up a complete protein.
- Eating a variety of plant foods each day should provide enough of the different amino acids to build the complete proteins our bodies need.
- To ensure a diet that meets their protein needs, vegetarians should eat nuts, legumes and wholegrain cereals.
Plant foods that are high in protein are:
- Legumes – chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans
- Nuts – tahini, peanut paste
- Seeds – sesame, pumpkin, poppy
- Soy products, including tempeh and tofu
- Wholegrain cereals – rye, barley, oats
Iron is essential for the making of red blood cells in the body. Lack of iron can lead to anaemia (lack of iron in the blood) which causes a loss of energy. The daily requirement of iron needed for children up to 11 years is 6-8mg per day.
Iron from animal foods (meat) is more easily and efficiently absorbed than the iron from plant-based sources, so to ensure that your child meets his daily requirements, you should try:
- Offering plant foods which contain iron every day. Eating plant foods every day which contain iron, such as: dried beans and cooked peas; dark leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli; dried fruit such as apricots and raisins; eggs; and nuts.
- Combining plant foods containing iron with foods that contain vitamin C. The combination helps the body to absorb the plant-based iron more efficiently. A breakfast of orange juice (vitamin C) and cereal (iron) is an ideal way of helping the body access the iron in his diet.
- Offering iron-enriched foods. Many breads, pastas and breakfast cereals have added iron which will help his iron intake.
- Don’t let him have caffeine drinks (which he shouldn’t be drinking anyway!) at meal times as caffeine interferes with the absorption of iron.
- Keeping bran consumption low. Bran can also interfere the absorption of plant-based iron.
Vitamin C is found in many everyday fruits and vegetables, such as:
- Vegetables – potato, tomato, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and capsicum
- Berries – strawberries, blueberries, cranberries
- Citrus fruits - oranges, lemons, grapefruit
- Tropical fruit – mangoes, bananas, pineapples
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 is essential for making blood cells and nerves. As the only reliable sources of vitamin B12 are found in animal-based foods, special care needs to be taken to ensure that your vegetarian child meets his daily requirements.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get all their vitamin B12 requirements by including eggs and milk-based products in their diet.
- It is difficult for vegans to meet their daily requirement of vitamins so they should include vitamin B12-enriched foods or a supplement to ensure that they get the correct amount each day. Vitamin B12 can be found in fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, tempeh and sea vegetables but these are not reliable sources of vitamin B12.
- Breast feeding mothers must ensure that they meet their daily requirement of vitamin B12 as B12 is needed for the normal development of the baby’s brain. A supplement is probably necessary at this time.
Calcium is necessary for the development of strong teeth and bones. Calcium is also vital for the on-going development of muscles, nerves and blood-clotting. With consistently low levels of calcium in the diet, you will become vulnerable to osteoporosis, which is a condition that results in thin, brittle bones.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians can easily meet their daily requirement of calcium through eating dairy foods (which are rich in calcium) each day.
- Vegans can find calcium in nuts, soybeans, dried fruits, esame seeds, broccoli and calcium-enriched soy milks.
Fibre is only found in plant foods, and so the risk for vegetarian children is that they receive too much, rather than too little, fibre each day. While there is no recommended daily intake of fibre for children, a good rule of thumb for children aged five is: Age + 10 grams of fibre a day; so a six year old needs 16 gram of fibre each day.
Too much fibre can lead to poor absorption of:
As fibre-rich food is very filling, too much fibre in the diet can also mean that your vegetarian child may not be eating enough of the other foods he needs to fulfil all his nutritional requirements.