Vegan Diets and Children
Many parents, well-meaning family members, and even health care professionals may be concerned about the safety of a vegan diet for children. However, not only is a well-planned and balanced plant-based diet safe for children, it is also very healthy! In fact, it can be a simple progression for many infants.
The position statement of the American Dietetic Association in 2009 stated:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2009. 1266-1282.
Eating a plant-based diet has many advantages. Vegetarian diets are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol which lead to lower rates of heart disease. Plant-based diets also tend to be higher in fiber, complex carbohydrates, folic acid, vitamin C and E, carotenoids as well as other phytochemicals. This may help explain the lower rates of cancers and higher rates of cancer survival in vegetarians.
Vegetarians also have lower rates of diabetes. Other favorable side effects of consuming a low-fat, plant-based diet for children and adolescents are a decreased risk of constipation, acne and menstrual cramps.
A nice summary can be found on the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Website. Vegetarian Diets: Advantages for Children.
Macronutrients & Supplementation
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 should be supplemented in the diet of all children and adults eating a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is made by microorganisms in the small intestine of animals and humans. However, it is not produced or absorbed in sufficient amounts in humans and therefore must be acquired from outside sources. B12 is often added to foods such as breakfast cereals, fortified plant milks, nutritional yeast and fortified faux meats. However, it is also available as a supplement and is in most multivitamins. It is recommended that all vegans take a B12 supplement to ensure that they are absorbing sufficient amounts of this vitamin.
Vitamin D: This vitamin is produced in the body after the skin is exposed to sunlight. Modern-day practices such as spending more time indoors, wearing protective clothing and sunblock have reduced our vitamin D production. Those living in northern regions may also have less sunlight exposure. Dark-skinned individuals also require longer exposure to the sun to produce adequate vitamin D. Vitamin D is often found in fortified foods such as plant milks and fortified cereals. It is also available as a daily supplement.
Calcium: Calcium is naturally found in many plant foods including greens such as kale, collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens. It is also found in broccoli, bok choy, and blackstrap molasses. Many processed plant foods are also fortified with calcium such as soy milk, calcium precipitated tofu, breakfast cereals and fortified juices. Calcium supplements are also available.
Iron: In general, diets that consist of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts provide sufficient amounts of iron. Plants that are naturally high in iron include legumes, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits. Other foods include iron-fortified cereals, enriched breads, pasta. Consuming foods high in vitamin C with iron rich foods helps increase the absorption. Broccoli, swiss chard and other dark leafy vegetables are naturally high in iron and vitamin C.
Zinc: Zinc is a micronutrient that is involved in growth and development, immune function, and wound healing. Sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, breakfast cereals fortified with zinc, wheat germ, and meat substitutes.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are important in cardiovascular health as well as eye and brain development. Good sources of ALA Omega-3 fatty acids in plant-based diets are flaxseed, walnuts and soy.
For more information, please also see this valuable resource from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine: Nutrition for Kids
good for all ages
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 4-6 months. Soy formulas made specifically for babies is an alternative if you are unable to breastfeed your infant. Vegetarian mothers who are breastfeeding should take a B12 supplement or ensure that they are taking in adequate B12 through fortified foods in their diet.
Between 4 and 6 months of age, you may introduce solids, starting with rice cereal mixed with breast milk or formula. It is important to use an iron-fortified cereal as babies' iron stores may start to drop around 6 months of age. After the baby has accepted the rice cereal, you can move on to whole grain or oat cereal.
Between 6 and 8 months, you can introduce one new simple food at a time every 4-5 days. Vegetables should be thoroughly cooked and mashed. Some examples are potatoes, green beans, carrots and peas. Fruits should be mashed or pureed. Babies love bananas, avocados, strained peaches and applesauce.
By 8 months of age, babies can eat crackers, breads and dry cereal. Your child should always be supervised during eating. At 8 months of age, you can also introduce protein-rich foods including mashed tofu and beans that are well-cooked and mashed.
After 1 year of age, some mothers choose to wean their babies off breast milk. At this point you can also transition formula fed babies to a fortified non-dairy milk such as soy milk or rice milk. 3 servings per day is sufficient. One serving of non-dairy milk is 8 oz.
Toddlers tend to be active and interested in exploring their environment. They may not sit long to eat and may go through “picky” periods. Their stomachs are small and they get full quickly. Because of this, toddlers may benefit from frequent small meals and snacks. Keep dishes simple and find creative ways to add fruits and vegetables to the diet.
If a toddler refuses a food the first time it is offered, don’t worry; it often takes repeated exposures to the same food before he or she will accept it. Avoid liquid calories in the form of juice or non-dairy milk in excess. If a child fills up on sweetened beverages, he will often lose his appetite for food.
Be patient and never force feed your child. Allow your child to decide how much he or she wants to eat, and you decide what foods to offer.
Healthy Snacks for Kids from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine website.
School Age Children
One of the challenges of feeding school age children is navigating school lunch and the many birthday parties and celebrations. Packing a school lunch may be the simplest way to ensure that your child is eating a healthy plant-based diet. You can also talk to your school principal about adding more plant-based options to the school menu. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine provides several resources on their Healthy School Lunches page.
Planning ahead is often necessary, but it is not difficult to provide acceptable alternatives to foods that are served at parties and events.
Ideas can be found on this publication Vegetarian Diets: Advantages for Children from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Adolescents are an important population to consider when addressing diet and nutrition. Teenagers may choose to adopt a plant-based diet for health, environmental or ethical reasons. They may be very passionate about this choice. These children can be guided to a balanced and healthy plant-based diet. There are many teenagers who are health conscious and will make great food choices to stay healthy and active.
However, there is a population of teenagers that the sudden switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet may be a sign of an underlying restrictive eating disorder. If you are concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, it is very important that he or she be evaluated by a health professional.