Are vegan diets safe for young children?
Dr Ros Miller
Registered Nutritionist @ Yummy Tummy Nutrition
I often get asked if plant-based diets are suitable for young children and with the rise in veganism and those just wanting to reduce their consumption of animal products 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 predominantly plant-based diet but it does require very careful thought and planning to ensure all nutrient needs are being met. Unlike adults, infants and children are doing lots of growing and developing so 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 meaning 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, reduce our meat consumption for health and environmental reasons and to save a few pennies!! 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, but it is what works for us as a family.
Lean cuts of meat, fish and dairy products are nutrient powerhouses, providing 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, some of which naturally contain or are fortified with these essential nutrients, meaning a plant-based diet is perfectly feasible with some careful planning. Some of the essential nutrients which need to be mindfully included in a vegan or predominantly plant-based diet are discussed within this article. Parents and carers who are raising a young child on a vegan or predominantly plant-based diet, would benefit from advice from a health professional to make sure their child’s nutritional needs are being met.
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. It is also worth noting that soya-based infant formulas should not be given as a main drink to children under the age of one, unless advised by a health professional. Rice-based infant formulas are also not recommended due to the level of arsenic they may contain.
Calcium is important for bone health and as most bone mass is built up during childhood it 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 but 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 but often the level is 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 so 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 so 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 predominantly found in animal products. Vegan options include fortified yeast extract (although the salt content makes it unsuitable for young children) and fortified breakfast cereals - check the label. If you and your family do not consume enough vitamin B12 through fortified foods alone, 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 predominantly found in animal products but unlike vitamin B12, it is also found in some plant based foods, including mushrooms, some nuts and seeds (such as almonds), yeast extract (again, the salt content makes it unsuitable for young children), vitamin B2-fortified dairy-free alternatives (such as soya, oat and almond dairy-free alternative drinks) and vitamin B2-fortified breakfast cereals (check the label).
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 but this process isn’t overly efficient. Good sources of short chain omega-3 include some seeds (such as flax and chia seeds), walnuts and walnut oil, 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 and 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 need three portions of plant-based protein sources a day if following a vegan or vegetarian diet. 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 (a particularly good one due to the range of amino acids it contains), beans and pulses (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, soya beans and lentils), some nuts and nut butters (such as peanuts, almonds and cashews) (where possible, choose the no added salt or sugar varieties and avoid giving whole nuts to young children), tofu, mycoprotein and quinoa.
A varied balanced diet is always a good idea, particularly 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, with our Registered Nutritionist, Dr Ros Miller.