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Feature Article

Vegetarianism in children and adolescents

Jenny A O’Dea, Vera E Schlumbom, Michael R Kohn

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Abstract

There are many types of vegetarian eating, and the associated health benefits and nutritional risks differ greatly. A varied vegetarian diet providing adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals will meet all the requirements of children and adolescents for growth and development. However, other diets may place young people at risk of nutritional deficiencies, growth failure and associated problems such as eating disorders.

Key Points

  • The quality of a vegetarian diet for adolescents usually depends on the adequacy of energy intake and provision of a good source of protein.
  • Diets that are high in dietary fibre (such as vegan diets) are unsuitable for children and adolescents, who tend to feel full before they have consumed enough nutrients.
  • The energy and nutrient needs of children and adolescents are high, and usually greater than those of fully grown adults. This point is largely missed by parents, who may be concerned about a child’s large appetite and food intake.
  • Strict vegetarian eating patterns such as fruitarian and vegan diets are likely to produce growth failure and nutritional problems in young patients. It is important that clinicians be aware of the potential problems as well as the diagnosis and treatment of young people on diets that generally amount to fads bordering on eating disorders.
  • Clinicians can provide patients and their parents with sound nutritional advice about vegetarian diets. Further specialised advice may be obtained from a dietitian or counsellor in the area of eating disorders.

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