Sarah Bushell, child nutritionist and weaning expert, helps guide us through vegan, plant based diets for little ones
Plant based diets are increasing in popularity as they’re better for our health, the health of the planet and the health of animals. Going vegan has never been so popular, one in 10 of us in the UK have tried it and it’s becoming increasingly common for families to raise their children on vegan diets.
I live just along the coast from Brighton, the vegan capital of the UK and see lots of families who are thinking about raising their babies and children on a vegan diet or who have already made the leap! Typical adult vegan diets tended to be low in fat and high in fibre which is not suitable for growing children who need a lot more energy and nutrients from food in order to meet their nutritional requirements for normal growth and development. Did you know that vegan diets are naturally high in fibre and too much fibre can fill little tummies quickly, curbing appetite and stopping eating before the child has actually managed to take enough nutrition from their meals? In addition there are other critical nutrients that have to be carefully thought about for babies and children, so parents need to consider meal planning and the food they offer in order to make sure they meet their unique nutritional requirements. It can be just as messy, so grab a Tidy Tot bib that suits your little one and head for the kitchen with this sage advice.
Plant based diets when weaning
Below is an overview of the nutrients that need a little more consideration when planning meals for vegan babies and children.
It’s highly unlikely that a vegan baby or child will be deficient in protein but its useful to know that the plant based milk alternatives are not suitable as a main drink for under 2’s and even children over 2 need to ensure they get protein elsewhere in their diets as the protein content of these mils are very low. Plant based proteins include beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and other pulses. Nuts (go for butters or ground versions), seeds, seitan and tofu. Your baby or child should have a plant based protein food at each meal.
Iron is present in beans and pulses, dried fruits, peas and green leafy vegetables. But all of these are also high in fibre. Nut butters, seed butters, tofu and seitan are also good vegan sources of iron. Iron fortified breakfast cereals (check the food labelling to make sure your child’s cereal is fortified) is also a really useful, child friendly addition to a vegan diet but do avoid those are sweetened. Each time an iron rich food is eaten make sure there is a vitamin C rich food on their plate too, this could be a fruit, salad, lightly cooked vegetable or a drink of diluted fruit juice (dilute 1 part juice to 10 parts water as the natural acid in fruit juice is harmful for developing teeth). Iron deficiency is a real problem for children is the UK and it often goes unnoticed. If you feel your child is pale, tired, has a poor immune system and is picking up everything going, take him or her to the GP for further assessment. Low iron can effect intellect, motor skills, behaviour, growth and ability to concentrate as they get older, so its important to address it if you have suspicions. Your baby or child should have a plant based iron rich food source at each meal.
This vitamin is found in fermented yeast products such as Marmite but unfortunately this is very salty and shouldn’t really be given to babies and toddlers. Over 2’s can have a little once or twice a week. Some other foods are also fortified, particularly breakfast cereals the plant based milks, but most children will need to take a supplement to ensure they get enough. Children need vitamin B12 for red blood cell formation and not enough can lead to a different type of anaemia.
Iodine levels can sometimes be low because iodine levels from plant foods are dependent upon how much was in the soil they were grown in. Babies and children shouldn’t take seaweed as a source of iodine as it contains too much for their small bodies. The best way for toddlers over 2 and older children to obtain iodine is to to have iodine enriched milk alternatives or take the Veg 1 supplement from the vegan society. Under 2’s should continue to breastfeed.
Calcium is found in beans and pulses, tofu, sesame seeds, dark green vegetables and white bread. For over two’s check that your plant based milk alternative contains added calcium, many of them do. Under 2’s will get this from breastmilk. Not enough calcium can cause weak bones and poor growth and coupled with not enough vitamin D can make your baby prone to developing rickets.
Vitamin D also know as the sunshine vitamin – is not really a vitamin as it’s a hormone used for bone health, and you can’t get enough of it from food. Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits the skin but your baby and child needs to get this from a supplement as in the northern hemisphere we don’t access adequate sunlight in the winter months and cover up in sun cream in the summer. Under 1’s need 8.5-10mcg (micrograms) from birth and over 1’s need the full 10mcg / day. Check the supplement you are giving because not all are suitable for vegans and not all contain the 8.5-10mcg they need.
Selenium is another nutrient. It’s used to control the speed of a lot of bodily reactions and is a catalyst as such. Most vegan babies will get enough selenium from their mother’s breastmilk, but those having little of this may need a supplement. Bizarrely, Brazil nuts are very high in selenium and, if ground, are fine to include in a baby’s or toddler’s diet.
Omega 3 is one of the most critical nutrients needed in the first two years of life and is extremely beneficial for both children and adults too. It’s needed for optimal brain and eye development and is linked to behaviour and intelligence. It’s also proven to have heart health benefits. However, this beneficial type of omega 3 is found almost exclusively in oily fish. The plant based version of omega 3 is in a different form that your child’s body has to convert. The conversion is inefficient and only small amounts are formed. You can find this in chia, hemp, tofu, linseeds, rapeseed oil, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts – remember whole nuts are a choking risk for children under 5. However because research in this field is limited, there are no official reputable guidelines regarding the amount of plant based omega 3 foods your baby or child should eat. However, algal oil is a supplement made from algae which contains the same type of omega 3, and a similar amount to oily fish, therefore you may want to consider supplementing your child’s diet with this.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
This is a vitamin found mainly in dairy foods and so can be lacking sometimes in vegan children’s diets. Nutritional yeast is a good way of obtaining this as are wheatgerm, pulses, almond butter, avocado and mushrooms. Some plant based milks are also fortified with vitamin B2, check the labels.
There are no infant formulas available on the UK market that are truly vegan. Soya formula can be given to babies over 6 months (but not before) but the vitamin D source comes from sheep’s wool. Therefore, the only milk suitable for vegan babies is breastmilk. If mum eats a well balanced diet there is no reason why nutrients like selenium and iodine wont be passed on through her breastmilk, but It may be worth seeing professional advice from a registered dietitian to ensure your diet contains enough.
Plant based milks are suitable as a main drink for over 2’s, and can be used in cooking for under 2’s but are very low in energy and protein in comparison to cow’s milk and so shouldn’t be thought of as a direct replacement. Avoid rice milk for under 5’s as it contains traces of inorganic arsenic naturally occurring from the rice paddy fields but in a form that’s too concentrated for little ones. Choose unsweetened and nutrient fortified plant based milks where you can, but be aware that additional energy and protein needs to come from food.
All breastfed babies should have vitamin D drops from birth and from 6 months all babies are recommended to have vitamins A, C and D too. Very few baby vitamin supplements are truly vegan as many contain vitamin D that is obtained from sheep’s wool. Algal oil for omega 3 is worth consideration too. The VEG-1 supplement from the vegan society is suitable from 1 year of age and may be needed if your little one has a poor appetite, is a fussy eater, eats a diet containing a lot of processed shop bought foods or still breastfeeds a lot. Seeing a dietitian will help you decide whether additional supplements truly are needed. It is possible to take too much!