Are vegan diets safe for young children?
I often get asked if plant-based diets are suitable for young children. With the rise in veganism and those just wanting to be more plant-based I thought it would be a good time to write a blog about this topic. In short, it is possible to raise a child on a vegan or mainly plant-based diet. However, it does require very careful thought and planning to ensure all nutrient needs are being met. Therefore, a vegan diet for children can be done safely. Unlike adults, infants and children are doing lots of growing and developing. If a child is not getting enough of an essential nutrient from their diet then this may affect not only their current health but their future health and prospects. In addition, young children have relatively small stomachs. This means the food they eat needs to be nutrient dense and varied.
Hands up, my family and I aren’t vegans. I try to include at least 2-3 vegetarian meals a week, to provide variety and reduce our meat consumption. When I do buy meat, I try to buy local and leaner cuts, which are lower in fat and saturated fat. I’m not saying this is the diet everyone should have. There are many different variations of a healthy balanced diet. Our version is what works for us as a family.
Lean cuts of meat, fish and dairy products are nutrient powerhouses. They provide essential, readily absorbed, nutrients, important for growth and development. Nevertheless, we are fortunate in the UK to have a wide variety of plant-based foods. Many vegan foods naturally contain or are fortified with essential nutrients. This means a plant-based diet is perfectly feasible with some careful planning. Some of the essential nutrients to think about are discussed within this article. Parents and carers who are raising a young child on a vegan or mainly plant-based diet, would benefit from advice from a health professional. This would help to make sure their child’s nutritional needs are being met. If you decide a vegan diet for children is the way forward for you, it is important that you keep up to date with professional advice to ensure all the vital nutrients are within their diet.
A word on infant formulas
Breastmilk or infant formula (based on cow’s or goat’s milk) should be your baby’s main drink until 12 months of age.
There are currently no infant formulas suitable for vegan infants in the UK. Those based on cows’ milk alternatives, such as soya, contain vitamin D sourced from sheep’s wool lanolin. Soya-based infant formulas should only be given as a main drink to children under the age of one if advised by a health professional. Also, it is not recommended to give rice-based infant formulas. This is due to the level of arsenic rice milk may contain.
Calcium is important for bone health. Most bone mass is built up during childhood so is essential that calcium needs are met during this time. Dairy products, such as cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese provide a good source of calcium. Children over the age of one on a vegan diet can be given dairy-alternative drinks as their main drink. It is important that these dairy-alternatives are calcium-fortified. Other plant-based calcium sources include plain fortified soya yogurt, calcium-set tofu, some green leafy vegetables (such as kale and rocket) and some breads (white, brown and wholegrain).
Cow’s milk is also a good source of iodine, a nutrient which is important for brain development. Iodine is not found in meaningful amounts in many foods. It can be found in some seaweeds. However, the level is often too high or variable to be suitable as an iodine supplement, especially in children. There are a limited number of dairy-alternative toddler milks which are fortified with iodine. Therefore, it is worth checking the label. Iodine supplements are available but it is important to speak to a health professional to make sure the supplement is suitable and at the right dosage for your child.
Iron is important for brain development and for the formation of red blood cells. A small percentage of young children have iron intakes which are unlikely to meet their needs. Iron-rich foods should be included in children’s diets from 6 months of age. The iron from animal sources is more bioavailable, meaning it is absorbed better by the body. However, vitamin C can help the body to absorb more of the iron from plant-based foods. Try to include foods containing vitamin C (such as red pepper, tomatoes, berries) with plant-based iron sources (such as beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, quinoa, wholemeal bread and dried fruit).
Vitamin B12 is important for the formation of red blood cells and for normal brain function. Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal products. Vegan options include fortified yeast extract (choose lower salt) and fortified breakfast cereals. Check the label. If you and your family do not consume enough vitamin B12 you should consider vitamin B12 supplements. Talk to a health professional about supplements to ensure that they are suitable and the correct dosage for your child.
Vitamin B2 helps to keep skin, eyes and the nervous system healthy and the body to release energy from food. Vitamin B2 is mainly found in animal products but it is found in some plant based foods. These include mushrooms, some nuts and seeds (such as almonds), yeast extract (choose lower salt), vitamin B2-fortified dairy-free alternatives. Check the label to see which dairy-free alternatives are fortified.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain and eye development. They are found in oily fish but vegan supplements produced from microalgae are available. A small amount of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can be converted to long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the body. However, this process isn’t overly efficient. Good sources of short chain omega-3 include some seeds (such as flax and chia seeds), walnuts, vegetable oils (such as flax seed, rapeseed and soybean oil) and soybeans.
Protein is a key nutrient for growth and development. Protein is made up of amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that the body cannot make itself and so are needed from the diet. Most vegans and vegetarians get enough protein from their diets. Young children who are vegan or vegetarian need three portions of plant-based protein sources a day. Variety is key to make sure you and your family are getting enough of the different essential amino acids. Plant-based protein sources include soya, beans and pulses (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, soya beans and lentils), some nuts and nut butters (such as peanuts, almonds and cashews), tofu, mycoprotein and quinoa.
A varied balanced diet is always a good idea. Careful planning is needed if you and your family are following a vegan or mainly plant-based diet. If you wanted to discuss your/your family’s diet with us we offer 1-2-1 consultations in person, or online. Consultations are with our Registered Nutritionist, Dr Ros Miller.
Healthy Eating Advice for Adults & Children
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