Is a vegan diet healthy for kids?
Is a vegan diet a healthy, balanced one for children? We asked our expert dietitian to set out what parents and guardians need to know...
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that includes vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and fruits. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including meat and meat-derived products like gelatine and rennet, as well as fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs and foods containing them, such as non-vegan Quorn products. Vegans also avoid honey.
Despite these restrictions, with the right planning and knowledge as well as appropriate food selection, a child may get all the nutrients and energy they need while following a vegan diet. Most important in early childhood is nutritional adequacy. Parents therefore need to be very well informed, otherwise there's a risk of a shortfall in some nutrients – particularly vitamin D, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and possibly vitamin B12.
So, what are the most important points parents and carers need to consider when feeding a plant-based diet? Read on to discover:
- What to be aware of when breastfeeding as a vegan
- What vegan options are available, if you are unable to breastfeed
- When to feed a plant-based ‘milk’ alternative
- How best to wean a vegan baby
- How to ensure a vegan child gets all the calories they need
- What the most important nutrients are for a vegan child after the age of one
What do I need to know when breastfeeding as a vegan?
In the first six months, breast milk is the safest, most nutritionally adequate form of feeding for most infants. If this is not possible, ‘first infant formula’ provides the nutrients your baby needs until they are around six months old. If you are breastfeeding, the UK Government recommends you give your baby vitamin D drops from birth to ensure they meet the recommended intake of 8.5-10 mcg per day. If your baby is formula-fed and having 500ml per day then you don’t need to do this because the formula will be supplying vitamin D. There are two forms of this vitamin – D2 is animal-free but D3 is not, although you may be able to source a vegan-friendly source of D3, derived from lichen.
Many mums continue breastfeeding until their baby is aged one or beyond. However, breast milk shouldn’t be the sole source of nutrition at this stage, 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.
If I can’t breast feed, can I use vegan formula?
Currently, there are no 100% vegan infant formula available in the UK. This is because these products may contain nutrients like vitamin D3 that are derived from animal sources. While soya-based formulas are available (albeit currently only with lanolin-derived vitamin D3), these are not recommended for infants under six months and should only be used on medical advice, so speak to your GP or health visitor before using it.
When can I feed a plant-based ‘milk’ alternative?
Soya and oat 'milks' can be used from one year old; before this time they aren’t appropriate 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 five years, it is low in protein and fat and may contain inappropriate levels of arsenic.
How can I best wean my vegan baby?
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 if appropriate, to the preferred 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 UK Government recommendations for children under five years old.
How do I ensure my vegan child gets enough calories?
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.
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What are the important nutrients to consider from the age of one?
This is key for growth and development, so is essential in every child’s diet. There are plenty of protein-rich foods suitable for a vegan diet. 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 from a variety of sources each day.
Calcium and milk alternatives
Important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, roughly 45% of our bone mass is accrued before the age of eight and a further 45% is laid in the next eight years, with the remaining 10% in the following 10 years.
A plant-based milk (about 300ml per day) that’s 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 'drinks' 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.
Fortified 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
This mineral is essential for the formation of red blood cells. Good sources include 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 as well as 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.
This vitamin is found in a very limited variety of foods, with the best source being sunlight absorbed by the skin. Dietary sources for vegans include fortified plant-based milk, spreads and cereals. The Department of Health recommends that all children between one and four years take a daily vitamin D supplement containing 10µg. In fact, all children aged six 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.
A supplement is typically recommended although some, but not all, plant-based milks may make a contribution if they have been fortified.
Fibre-rich 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. Choose nutrient-dense foods that also contain fibre, such as avocados, nuts and dried fruits.
Overall, can a vegan diet be a healthy choice for children?
In summary, it is possible to provide a balanced vegan diet for the child in your care as long as you 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 varied, balanced diet and seek professional guidance, where necessary.
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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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