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Vegetarian diets for children

Debby Demory-Luce, PhD, RD, LD
Kathleen J Motil, MD, PhD
Section Editors
Jan E Drutz, MD
Amy B Middleman, MD, MPH, MS Ed
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


Vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular [1-5]. A poll conducted in the United States in 2016 estimated that 3.3 percent of adult Americans (8 million) indicated that they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, while 1.5 percent (3.7 million) follow a vegan diet [6]. In this survey, "vegetarian" was defined as no meat, fish, or poultry; and "vegan" was defined as no meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, or eggs. When eating away from home, 37 percent (91 million) reported that they "sometimes or always" eat vegetarian or vegan meals; 5 percent (12 million) "always" choose vegetarian meals; and 3 percent (7 million) "always" choose vegan meals. As a result, more food companies and restaurants are offering vegetarian options, such as a vegan burger or vegan ice cream. Approximately 8 to 10 percent of adults in Germany, Austria, Italy, and the United Kingdom describe themselves as vegetarians [7,8].

An increasing number of children and adolescents maintain a vegetarian eating style [9-11]. An estimated 8 percent of adolescents in the United Kingdom [12] and 6 percent of public middle- and high-school students surveyed in the midwestern United States [13] consume a vegetarian diet. A poll conducted in 2014 estimated that 4 percent (2 million) of American youth aged 8 to 18 years are vegetarian or vegan, 3 percent (1.5 million) do not eat meat, fish, or poultry, and 1 percent (500,000) do not eat meat, fish, poultry, dairy, or eggs [14]. In addition, an estimated 32 percent (15 million) of American youth eat one or more vegetarian meals per week; 4 percent "always" have vegetarian or vegan meals and 1 percent "always" have vegan meals.

Studies of vegetarian diets are complicated by variations in definitions for the term "vegetarian." Definitions range from whether the individual considers himself or herself as vegetarian ("self-defined" vegetarians), avoids meat only, or lives by the strict definition (never consuming meat, fish, and poultry). As an example, one review of dietary patterns and nutrient intakes of self-defined vegetarians (aged six years and older) found that patterns ranged from those who consumed reduced amounts of red meat but included poultry and fish, to those who excluded all animal foods [15].

Reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet are varied and include potential health benefits and sociopolitical, ecological, and ethical issues related to allocation of resources and animal rights [2,4,5,16-22]. In some cases, and particularly among adolescents, it may be difficult to distinguish whether a choice to eat a vegetarian diet is related to health or ethical concerns, versus a desire for dietary restriction [23,24]. The types and composition of vegetarian diets also are varied and have important implications for the growth and development of children and adolescents.

The best available data regarding the nutritional quality of vegetarian diets and strategies to prevent nutritional deficiencies while consuming vegetarian diets are reviewed here. Nutrition requirements, deficiencies, and supplementation of specific nutrients are discussed separately. (See appropriate topic reviews).

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Sep 27, 2017.
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