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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 some nutrients might fall short, such as vitamin D, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and possibly vitamin B12 deficiency.
So what are the most important points parents have to remember when feeding their child a plant-based diet. Read on to discover more.
For more on vegan diets, we've collaborated with BBC Future – read more below:
The health benefits of going vegan – BBC Future
Why vegan junk food might be even worse for your health – BBC Future
How a vegan diet could affect your intelligence – BBC Future
The hidden biases that drive anti-vegan hatred – BBC Future
The mystery of why there are more women vegans – BBC Future
Why the vegan diet is not always green – BBC Future
Which milk alternative should we be drinking? – BBC Future
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 beyond. However, breast milk 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 formula fortified with iron, calcium, vitamins B12 and D is recommended. Speak to your GP, dietician or health visitor for an appropriate recommendation.
Soya and oat 'milks' are not appropriate for babies less than one year old, as they don’t have the right ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat. They also lack the vital nutrients for growth and development. Rice milk should also be avoided for all children under 5 years, it is low in protein and fat and these products contain levels of arsenic.
During weaning, an iron-fortified infant cereal is a great option for a first food. The cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or plant-based formula for a thin consistency. A variety of foods are to be encouraged when weaning, including vegetables, cereal foods, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), tofu, ground nuts, seeds and fruits. As long as your baby doesn't have an allergy, nuts can be given from six months old, but make sure they are finely ground. Children under five years old should not have whole nuts because of the risk of choking. Naturally sweet fruits (such as apples or bananas) or vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes or butternut squash) can be used to sweeten foods in place of sugar. Never add artificial sweeteners, sugar or salt to foods for infants.
It's worth bearing in mind that as your baby's intake of breast milk or formula decreases, you may need to consider supplementation – speak to your GP or health visitor about the Department of Health's recommendations for children under five years old.
Eating for energy
Vegan diets tend to be less energy dense, so children need to eat larger 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 cold-pressed rapeseed are key, as they add more calories to meals and encourage the production of important fatty acids, which are needed for brain development.
Focus on the following nutrients from the age of one:
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 good mix of amino acids. Grain-like food such as quinoa as well as nuts and nut butters are good sources of protein, 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
Calcium is key for maintaining healthy bones, and approximately 45% of our bone mass is accrued before the age of eight years. A further 45% is laid in the next eight years, with the remaining 10% in the following 10 years. It's therefore essential that calcium requirements are met for children eating a vegan diet.
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A plant-based milk (about 300ml per day) that’s been fortified with calcium and vitamin D is a good choice, and you may wish to include soya yogurts and calcium-rich cereals in your child's diet too. Oat and coconut 'milks' are another option – they’re both available in a fortified form with calcium (but not all are fortified with vitamin D - so check labels). Fortified rice milk can be used as a main drink for children but only from the age of five.
Plant-based spreads can be used. Almonds, calcium-set tofu, beans and green leafy vegetables are also good sources of calcium, and should be regularly included in your child’s diet. It’s important that parents check the calcium recommendations for their child as they vary with age.
Calcium requirements vary for children according to age:
- Under 1 year old – 525mg calcium per day
- One to three years old – 350mg calcium per day
- Four to six years old – 450mg calcium per day
- Seven to 10 years old – 550mg calcium per day
- 11 to 18 year old females – 800mg calcium per day
- 11 to 18 year old males – 1000mg calcium per day
Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells. Good sources of iron, such as pulses (including beans), lentils and peas, dark green leafy vegetables (like broccoli, okra, watercress or spring greens), wholemeal bread and flour, nuts, wholegrains and fortified cereals should regularly be included in their diet. Dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and figs are also good choices. By combining an iron-rich food with a vitamin C rich one you will increase your child’s uptake of iron; try orange segments on a fortified breakfast cereal or peppers with lentils in a vegetable casserole.
Required for absorption of calcium to maintain strong bones and teeth, vitamin D is found in a very limited variety of foods, with the best source being sunlight absorbed by the skin. Dietary sources for vegans are limited, so fortified plant-based milk, spreads and cereals are the best options. The Department of Health recommends that all children between 1-4 years take a daily vitamin D supplement containing 10µg. In fact, all children aged 6 months to five years are recommended to take vitamin supplements containing A, C and D everyday. Not all vitamin D supplements are suitable for vegans, so check the label before you buy.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These essential fats are vital for brain development and help keep the brain healthy and functioning optimally. They're also important for vision and heart health. Plant sources include chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp and walnuts. However, because plant foods are not the richest source of these essential fats, some vegans, including pregnant and breast-feeding mums, choose to supplement with omega-3 fatty acids derived from microalgae.
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, but fortified breakfast cereals and some low-salt yeast extracts contain B12, as do fortified 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. A reliable source of iodine is also important, and a supplement is typically recommended.
High-fibre foods tend to be very filling and can often cause children to become full before they've got all of the calories and nutrition they need. Opt for nutrient-dense foods that also contain fibre, such as avocados, nuts and dried fruits. 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 as long as parents and guardians are well informed about the key nutrients required for growth and development. Furthermore, parents of vegan children must be extra cautious to ensure they're eating a balanced diet and seek professional guidance, where necessary.
You might also be interested in:
- Our favourite vegan recipes
- How to make vegan cheese
- Spotlight on... vegan diets
- A balanced diet for vegans
Are you bringing your child or children up as vegan? Let us know how you're getting on in the comments below...
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. This article was last reviewed on 22nd January 2020 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens. A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, and the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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