Is a vegan diet healthy for kids?

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

Pregnant mother with daughter choosing vegetables

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, 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?

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is encouraged for at least the first six months, as the milk is a rich source of nutrients. Many parents even 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 soya formula fortified with iron, calcium, vitamins B12 and D is recommended, but do speak to your GP or health visitor before using it. 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.

Vegan weaning

Vegan weaning puree recipes
During weaning, iron-fortified infant rice cereal is a great option for a first food. The cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or soya 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 fatty acids, which are needed for brain development.

Focus on the following nutrients from the age of one:

Protein

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. Grains 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

Vegan milk alternatives on a table

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. 

Soya milk (about 300ml per day) that’s been fortified with calcium and vitamin D is the best 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 vitamin D). Fortified rice milk can be used as a main drink for children from the age of five. 

Plant-based spreads such as Pure, Vitalite or Suma 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.

 

Age group

Age (years)

Calcium (mg) per day

Infant

Under one

525

Children

One to three

Four to six

seven to 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, 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. 

Vitamin D

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 six months and five years take a vitamin D supplement. The dose will depend on the child’s age. But, not all vitamin D supplements are suitable for vegans, so check the label before you buy.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These essential fats help keep the brain healthy and functioning optimally, but they're also important for vision and heart health. Plant sources include ground chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp and ground walnuts. Alternatively, some vegans supplement with omega-3 fatty acids derived from microalgae. 

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, 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.

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 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 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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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 2nd July 2019 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).

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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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!
jaynepearson
30th Aug, 2016
Errr, really? Sugar beet? Sugar cane? Nobody ever became obese because of a vegetable? I think you might need to re-think that comment! And just as vegans presumably don't eat lentils and tofu at every single meal, neither do we meat eaters eat meat at every meal. Your comments are insulting actually - your suggestion is that meaters are such thickies and so poorly informed that the poor creatures don't realise they need fruit and veg and pulses as well. I can't remember the last time I saw anyone have bacon and eggs for breakfast - I'm a meat eater, but couldn't think of anything more revolting when you've only just got out of bed. A slice of toast (homemade wholegrain since you ask) and/or some fruit, depending on what I'm planning to do that morning, works just fine. Lunch would probably be an egg or tuna salad, or some cheese and fruit, and yes it's quite likely that our evening meal might contain fish or meat. But the flesh would only be a tiny proportion of the whole, with the majority of the meal made up from vegetables, and I deliberately ensure we have several meat/fish-free days during each week. This isn't because of any perceived health benefits, but purely because it forces me to be a bit more creative about what we eat, so that we eat a larger range of different foods from all of the food groups. There are always going to be people who eat an unhealthy diet, whether they be meat eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians or vegans. Last time I looked, none of those diets exclude the dreaded white sugar, fizzy drinks, cakes, crisps or chocolate. I imagine there may be quite a few obese vegans around after all. If people choose a vegan diet, that is absolutely up to them, though you would have to be extremely conscientious to make sure you weren't going short of a few vital nutrients, and I certainly don't think I would risk inflicting this on an infant.
lisel
22nd Aug, 2016
A vegan diet can be healthy just like a standard British diet can be very unhealthy (look at how many fat kids and adults there are. Look at the cancer numbers. The list is long when it comes to health issues caused by lifestyle). You can suffer from B12 deficiency no matter which diet you follow, Riddick. You will also find that more and more athletes are in fact eating a vegan diet. Not just because its trending (which is a good thing!), but because its healthy. B12 is in meat, but where do you think it comes from? I can tell you that cows are given B12 as a supplement in their feed..why not take the supplement your self in stead of eating a dead cow? Eating meat and drinking milk from another species is linked to so many health issues that I think taking a supplement once a week is preferable.
Pegaman
4th Aug, 2016
Hi, yes we bringing up our child as vegan. We live in Sweden. We are vegans but we were not 100% sure while pregnant that it was possible, or at least safe to bring up a child vegan. I am a scientist at a neurochemistry lab and luckily enough there was a special issue in our Swedish doctors journal about diets for children. There was an article saying that it's both safe and even beneficial, as long as you know your facts (such as b12, iron, vitamin d and DHA/omega 3 supplements). The issue was full of tables with dietary requirements and references. Since then we feel comfortable bringing up our child vegan.
Yogabirds's picture
Yogabirds
24th Aug, 2016
Your comment intrigues me as I am days from starting my baby on solids (of a vegan diet). I've been near vegan for 27 years myself. Can you show me the issue in the journal. Does it recommend vegan sources of b12, iron, vitamin D, DHA/omega for babies? I would love to read it. Thanks, vegan mom in Australia
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
10th Aug, 2016
Hi, we just wanted to say thanks so much for getting in touch and sharing your experience of bringing your child up as vegan. We really appreciate you taking the time to respond.

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