Weight Gain in Vegetarian Toddlers

Weight Gain in Vegetarian Toddlers

overweight toddlerBy Brenda Davis, RD

Vegan and vegetarian toddlers are just as susceptible to weight gain as other children. By choosing foods carefully and taking their nutritional needs into consideration as well as being mindful of the foods they should limit, you can prevent your little one from having such weight issues. 

Insure sufficient calories 
Vegan diets are often high in bulk and low in fat. While this is great for disease prevention, it may not promote optimal growth and development. This does not mean vegan diets are inappropriate for infants and toddlers. It simply means that when constructing a vegan diet for young children, growth and development must be priority number one, and the caloric density of the diet must be high. Article continues below

  • Provide 3 meals per day plus snacks between meals.
  • Limit fluids with meals (can be filling).
  • Add calories where possible (e.g. add soymilk powder to baked good, pancakes, shakes, etc., add sauces to vegetables, extra spreads on bread, oil in baking, etc.)

Aim for 40-50% of calories from fat
This sounds high, but remember breast milk contains about 50% of calories from fat. Most of the fat should come from foods rich in monounsaturated fats such as nut butters and avocados. Sufficient essential fatty acids should also be provided (an essential balance oil is a great choice eg. Essential Balance Junior by Omega). It is NOT necessary to add meat (or other animal foods) to increase fat in the diet. Instead, add higher fat plant foods. Excellent choices include:

  • Tofu – this is an ideal food for small children – packed with protein and fat (plus other nutrients), but low in fiber. Use it in shakes, scrambles, sandwiches, soups, stews, roasts, loaves, patties and desserts.
  • Fortified, full fat soymilk – use fortified soymilk as a beverage and in food preparation. Aim for at least 20 oz. fortified soymilk per day.
  • Nuts and seeds butters and creams – nuts and seeds may cause choking in toddlers under 4 years of age, so blending nuts and seeds into butters and creams works well for this age group. Use nut and seed butters in baking, on toast, in sauces and puddings.
  • Avocados – these little gems are loaded with fat, calories and nutrients. Add them to salads, puddings, dips, spreads and toppings.

Limit total fiber intake
Fiber fills the stomach and can reduce total caloric intake. Avoid concentrated fiber like wheat bran in the diet. Use mainly refined grains to produce weight gain (sufficient fiber will come from other plant foods). Some whole grains should be included to increase intake of vitamins and minerals. 

Provide at least 25 grams protein per day
Insufficient protein can compromise growth. Soymilk (20 oz.) will provide about 15 grams of protein. One veggie deli slice has 4-5 grams, and &rac14; cup tofu has 8-10 grams. Even a slice of bread has 2-3 grams of protein. Thus, insuring sufficient protein is not difficult if caloric intake is adequate. 

Be aware of the needs for iron and zinc
These nutrients are very important for growth and development. Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in infants. Iron-fortified infant cereal, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds and dried fruits are all good sources. A lack of zinc can mean poor growth and reduced immunity for children. Include a multi-vitamin/mineral zinc supplement that provides 5-10 mg of zinc. 

Don’t forget the Vitamin B12!
There are no reliable plant sources of vitamin B12. Use a supplement or fortified foods (at least 1 mcg/day). A lack of vitamin B12 can result in muscle wasting, weakness and irreversible nerve and brain damage. 

Include sufficient calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for strong, growing bones. Both of these nutrients can be provided in fortified soymilk, and other fortified foods. Other good sources of calcium are dark greens (excluding spinach, beet greens and Swiss chard), tofu made with calcium, almonds, legumes and figs.

Sample Menu for Slow-growing Vegan Toddlers
Time Menu 1 Menu 2 Menu 3
Breakfast Tofu (¼ cup) 
Bagel/ English muffin (½) or toast (1) with non-hydrogenated margarine or nut butter 1 slice veggie back bacon
½ cup fresh squeezed OJ
Pancakes (2 small) or waffles (1)
(Add fortified infant cereal. Use soymilk and added powdered soy formula).
½ banana 
½ cup fresh squeezed OJ
Cereal (hot or cold) with added fortified infant cereal) (1/2-1 cup)
Soymilk (1/2 cup)
Toast (1/2 slice)
Nut or seed butter (1 tsp.)
Snack Shake:
1 cup soymilk
½ frozen banana
3 strawberries
2 tsp. soymilk powder
1 cup soymilk
½ frozen banana
3 strawberries
2 tsp. soymilk powder
1 cup soymilk
½ frozen banana
3 strawberries
2 tsp. soymilk powder
Lunch Pasta with tomato sauce and veggie ground. (1 cup)
Veggies and dip
½ cup soymilk
Tofu salad sandwich Bean and vegetable soup.
½ cup soymilk
Fried Rice (1/2 cup)
Leftover rice with veggies and tofu or meat analog.
Spring roll and ½ cup soymilk
Snack Crackers with a veggie pate or other spread Muffin with nut butter (add soymilk powder and infant cereal) Soy yogurt with fruit and granola
Dinner Meatless loaf (1 slice)
Mashed potatoes (1/4 cup)
Broccoli and vegan cheese or cashew sauce
½ cup soymilk
Pan-fried tofu (2 pieces)
Rice (1/4 cup)
Squash and Peas
½ cup soymilk
Veggie Burger 
Oven fries 
Salad with oil-based dressing
½ cup soymilk
Snack Sneaky Dad’s Pudding(1 serving) Sneaky Dad’s Pudding(1 serving) Sneaky Dad’s Pudding(1 serving)

Dad’s Sneaky Pudding 

This recipe was created by Earthsave International’s Chair of the Board of Directors, Louisville Lawyer and amazing chef, John Borders.

  • 1.5 cups frozen strawberries
  • 1 banana
  • 1-2 tsp. carob or cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp. flaxseed oil
  • 3-5 Tbsp. nut butter (cashew or almond)
  • 2-3 Tbsp. orange juice or other healthy juice such as carrot juice
  • 2 Tbsp. fortified soymilk
  • 1/8-1/4 avocado

Set your little companion up on a stool beside you, ready to toss in the ingredients and push the button. Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender. This works best in a food processor; you might add a bit more juice or soymilk if you use a blender. Blend until smooth. 

Makes 2 servings. 

Per serving: 336 calories, 7 g protein, 40 g carbohydrate, 19 g fat. 

For a toddler aged 1-3 years, using 3 Tbsp. cashew butter for the whole recipe, a serving of this pudding provides approximately:

  • 100% of the requirement for magnesium, folate, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Over 66% of the requirement for copper and potassium
  • Over 50% the requirement for pyridoxine and zinc
  • 42% of the protein requirements
  • 25% of the needs for calories and selenium
  • 20% of the needs for iron

Adapted From: Becoming Vegan (Davis and Melina, The Book Publishing Co. Summertown Tennessee, 2000)

Brenda Davis

Author: Brenda Davis

Brenda Davis is a registered dietitian in private practice. She is the past Chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. Brenda is co-author of the international best seller, Becoming Vegetarian, and highly acclaimed Becoming Vegan. Brenda is an internationally recognized speaker. She has worked as a public health nutritionist, a clinical nutrition specialist, nutrition consultant and academic nutrition instructor.

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