Is a vegan diet healthy for kids?

Is it safe to bring a baby up as vegan? Our dietitian, Emer Delaney, separates the facts from the fiction...

Vegan kids

The short answer is yes, with the right planning and knowledge, a child can get everything they need following a vegan diet. The biggest concern with vegan diets in early childhood is nutritional inadequacy. Parents therefore need to be very well informed otherwise there's a risk of vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly vitamin B12 deficiency.  

So what are the most important points parents have to remember when feeding their child a plant-based diet?

Eating for breastfeedingBreastfeeding

Breastfeeding is encouraged for at least the first six months as the milk is a rich source of nutrients. Many parents continue breastfeeding until the age of one or longer as breast milk is such a rich source of nutrients. However it shouldn’t be the sole source of nutrition, and weaning should begin from six months. If parents decide to stop breastfeeding at six months, a soya formula fortified with iron, calcium, vitamins B12 and D is recommended. Soya and oat milks are not appropriate for babies less than one year as they don’t have the right ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat. They also lack the vital nutrients for growth and development.

Vegan weaning

During weaning, iron-fortified infant rice cereal is a great option as the first food due to its high source of iron.  The cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or soya formula to keep a thin consistency. A variety of foods are to be encouraged when weaning including vegetables, potatoes, cereal foods, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), tofu, ground nuts, seeds and fruits. As long as baby doesn't have an allergy, nuts can be given from six months but make sure they are finely ground. Children under five years old should not have whole nuts because of the risk of choking and inhalation. Naturally sweet fruits (such as apples or bananas) or vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes or butternut squash) can be used to sweeten foods rather than adding sugar. Never add artificial sweeteners to foods for infants.

Eating for energy

Vegan diets tend to be less energy dense and children need to eat large quantities to get enough energy. We know that children typically have small appetites so achieving their daily calorie needs can be a challenge.  Adding healthy oils to food, such as soya bean or rapeseed are key, as they add more calories to meals and encourage the production of fatty acids needed for brain development.

Focus on the following nutrients from the age of one:

Veggie chilliProtein

Protein is a key nutrient for growth and development and is essential in every child’s diet. There are plenty of protein-rich foods suitable for a vegan diet and these include a variety of pulses, beans and lentils which will ensure a mix of amino acids. Grains such as quinoa, nuts and nut butters are good sources of protein to include, provided your child has no allergies. Egg replacers are available in health foods shops and some supermarkets, and can be used in cooking and baking. Aim to include three portions of vegetable protein per day to ensure adequate nutrition. 

Calcium and milk alternatives 
Cherry yogurt

We all know calcium is key for healthy bones and approximately 45 per cent of our bone mass is accrued before the age of 8 years. A further 45 per cent is laid in the next eight years with the remaining 10 per cent in the following 10 years. It's therefore essential calcium requirements are met for children on a vegan diet. 

Soya milk that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D are an important choice, and include soya yogurts and calcium-rich cereals too. Oat and coconut milks are another option – they’re both fortified with calcium but not vitamin D. Rice milk can be used as a main drink for children from the age of five. 

Spreads such as Pure, Vitalite or Suma can be used. Almonds, tofu, beans and green leafy vegetables are also good sources of calcium and should be regularly included in a child’s diet. It’s important that parents check the calcium recommendations for their child as they vary with age.

 

Age Group

Age (years)

Calcium (mg) per day

Infant

Under 1

525

Children

1-3

4-6

7-10

350

450

550

Adolescents

11-18

800 (females)
1000 (males)

Iron

Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells. Good sources of iron that should regularly be included in the diet are a mixture of pulses including beans, lentils and peas, dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, okra, watercress or spring greens, wholemeal bread and flour, nuts, wholegrains and fortified cereals. Dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and figs are also good choices. 

Vitamin D

Required for absorption of calcium and strong bones and teeth, vitamin D is made in the skin. Dietary sources for vegans are limited so fortified soya milk is the best option to use. It may also be necessary to start a vitamin D supplement. The dose will depend on the child’s age.

Vitamin B12

Essential for the formation of red blood cells, vitamin B12 is key for brain and nervous system formation. It’s widely recognised that vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources, so those following a vegan diet may need a supplement. Fortified breakfast cereals and some low salt yeast extracts contain B12, as do plant milks and soya products. It’s important that a combination is included in your child’s diet. If not, a B12 supplement may be required. 

Fibre

High fibre foods tend to be very filling and can often cause children to become full before they've got all of the calories they need. Avocados, nuts and dried fruits are great energy-dense foods to include that contain fibre. Remember it’s good practice to encourage children to brush their teeth after eating dried fruits to minimise the chance of tooth decay.

In summary, vegan diets can be safe for children once parents are well informed about the key nutrients required for growth and development. However, parents must be extra cautious to ensure they're following a balanced diet.

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This article was published on 3 August 2016. Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Are you bringing your child or children up as vegan? Let us know how you're getting on in the comments below... 

Comments, questions and tips

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Dawn Carr
25th Aug, 2016
My 7 year-old daughter is the picture of health and has been a thriving vegan since birth. I’d have worried too much about her health and happiness if I were feeding her flesh, eggs and animals’ milk, as the dangers of feeding those foods to children are very well-documented. There's so much suffering and hardship in the world that we have a limited ability to change, but we can easily do something to make the world a less violent place every time we sit down to eat: we can choose healthy vibrant plant based meals that do not contribute to the misery of cows on dairy farms or the disappearance of fish from our oceans. Teaching our children about compassion is important as well as teaching them about healthy eating.
geezo
23rd Aug, 2016
My husband is vegan & we have had this debate since our son was born 7 months ago.he wants to raise him vegan whereas I do not.not because I think it's unhealthy,but just because of how restrictive it can be!i believe the best option is to educate your child about where meat & dairy comes from so that when they're older they can make informed choices by themselves.I also feel that feeding your children a diet of processed junk is a million miles more unhealthy than a vegan lifestyle!
TolanNightBlade
15th Oct, 2016
Vegan diets are not restrictive at all. Your logic would indicate that you should raise your child vegan, then let them choose if they want to consume the flesh of animals after they learn where meat / diary and such products come from and how animals are treated. Forcing them to consume these products then teaching them is much more abusive.
StarryGlen
22nd Aug, 2016
Why don't these GoodFood articles have published dates stamps on them? I think these type of articles should, if someone is trying to compare online resources to find the latest information, they shouldn't have to guess by the comment statement dates or go digging in the source pages for the info.
Riddick
22nd Aug, 2016
Wow... This article is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst. To state that a vegan diet is healthy for children, but only under the stipulation that they might need fortified foods, and will definitely need a B12 supplement is outrageous. If you need supplementation to complete your diet, no matter what age, then your diet is deficient in something. If B12 is essential to humans, and it must come from the food we consume, then any diet that excludes it is dangerous. Sure veganism is trendy, but there is a reason why so few of the world's top athletes, and high performance power athletes in particular, are vegan. It's simply incomplete and it's irresponsible to advocate supplements to children as a means of filling the dietary gap left by excluding meat from the diet.
TolanNightBlade
15th Oct, 2016
What are your credentials to make these claims? And please post citations for your claims, it is truly amazing how many people are "experts" with no real knowledge. Do you know historically where B12 was obtained in our diets? B12's main source was untreated water, since we treat water the B12 is lost. B12 is mainly produced by soil born bacteria and within the colons of many animals, this B12 is excreted in the faeces so is not of direct use. Grazing animals such as cows, would obtain there B12 from grass which has B12 from faeces and bacteria. Modern factory farmed animals require B12 supplements / injections .... how very natural! B12 deficiency is rampant in meat eaters with modern agricultural practices destroying soil ecology.
Yogabirds's picture
Yogabirds
24th Aug, 2016
'Outrageous'? Really? Most, if not all vegans I know are the most nutritionally informed people I know. Not to mention the amount of veg naturopathic doctors. Vitamin B12 is available from nutritional yeast and off organic vegetables grown in soil.
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
22nd Aug, 2016
Thanks for your thoughts on this piece. Emer our consulting dietitian has read your comment and has the following reply to your concerns: “People will often choose to feed their children a vegan diet because of cultural, personal and or ethical choices. We do not condemn people for making such choices. As a dietitian, my role is to support and educate people on the healthiest way to incorporate their beliefs, to highlight any challenging areas of any diet and to ensure a diet is healthy and balanced. The biggest concern with a vegan diet in early childhood is nutritional inadequacy, but with the correct knowledge and approach, children can grow and thrive following one. Yes, supplementation may be required, but supplementation may also be required in non-vegan infants, which is extremely important to understand. Eating meat alone does not make a diet healthy or unhealthy, it’s all about balance and variety. We see numerous parents in our clinic to educate them on the healthiest way to follow a vegan diet, should that be the road they want to follow. Seeking help and advice from an expert is important.”
Riddick
23rd Aug, 2016
Thanks for your reply to my comment, I really appreciate it. Whilst I don't care what people eat, as a professional researcher (PhD) I do care about research. Some things in response to your reply: Saying that non-vegan children may need supplementation does not address the issue that if you are a vegan, you must supplement B12. There's no way around it. If you want to be a healthy vegan, you need B12. B12 comes from meat - and having spent the best part of 12 years living and working on a farm - and isn't usually an additive. Cows are not supplemented B12 as general practice, and certainly weren't supplemented B12 when humans began drawing upon meat as a food source. Humans did not evolve to produce B12 as a result of easy access to animals who do. As you know it is produced by gut bacteria. Humans don't carry the gut bacteria that many animals do, so no B12 production for us. Plants also don't contain sufficient amounts of heme iron, meaning the bioavailability of iron in non-meat containing diets can be be chronically low. So possibly low iron, and no B12 without supplementation in a vegan diet. Your comment about balance and variety is particularly interesting - the argument could be made that non-vegans have far more diverse dietary options than vegans, being that they can eat all the same vegetables as vegans, plus animal products of all varieties. Similar academic work shows clearly the benefits of diet containing meat for power athletes - endurance athletes not so much. Diets that include meat are far more effective at providing the required nutrition for muscle recovery and repair. I'm definitely not picking a quarrel, but I think it's vital that parents don't overlay their lifestyle choices and political motivation onto their children, especially when their children's health and wellbeing is at stake, and veganism, is in many people's minds a social or political decision first and foremost.
lisel
25th Aug, 2016
Yes! Research matters ! I completely agree. Yes I know b12 is only to be found in animals, eggs and dairy. We need so very very little b12 in our diet as it is stored in our bodies . Some people can live on a vegan diet for 20-30 years before showing signs of deficiency. Some people not so long. Being vegan you are also likely to "suffer" from vitamin D deficiency. However alot of people who eat meat also suffer from these things. Balance and variety is important in the diet. And yes, you can argue that non-vegans have more diverse dietary options, but one thing is theory and one thing is what people actually do. Bacon and eggs for breakfast, ham sandwich for lunch, scotch egg or sausage roll as a snack and roast for dinner...its not variety. But that's what most people actually eat and they might top it up with a multivitamin. In my experience most people eating a vegan diet know exactly what they need and how to get it without supplements when possible. So when you say that parents should not "overlay their lifestyle choices and political motivation onto their children, especially when their children's health and wellbeing is at stake" How is that any different from what any parent do? Meat-eaters and vegans alike. I can assure you that veganism is as much a health decision as it is a political one. If you are worried about children's health veganism is the wrong place to start. Almost 50% of children and grownups in the UK are overweight (or obese) I can assure you that its not because of vegetables!

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