Updated: Aug 2, 2020
Veganism has been around for a long, long time. However, as plant-based diets are hitting the mainstream with more and more enthusiasm, new questions have arisen on raising children on a vegan diet.
What is veganism:
Just so we are all on the same page, veganism is a type of lifestyle that practices abstaining from the use of animal products; especially within the diet.
Dietary Vegans: do not eat meat, eggs, dairy or any other products derived from animals (including foods like honey).
Ethical Vegans: follow a vegan diet, but also extend this philosophy to other areas of their lives and don't use animal products (or products tested on animals).
Veganism focuses on a plant-based diet such as bread, cereals, grains, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables to meet their needs. A healthy vegan diet has many health benefits including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. There are also important environmental and social benefits to a vegan diet.
A common question is: should I be raising my baby and toddler vegan?
This is a question parents will have to answer for their family. A move to a vegan diet doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. You can always start with a plant-based diet and then add steps towards your ultimate goal of vegan if that is what is best for your family. It is important to monitor your child's growth during this process to ensure that they are gaining weight and meeting energy requirements for growth. I would also suggest following up with a Registered Dietitian to make sure your little one is getting all the nutrition they need during this period of rapid growth and development!
Here are some key tips about raising healthy babies and toddlers:
Before 6 months: your baby only needs breastmilk or a soy-based infant formula (if you are not breastfeeding). In addition, a supplement of 400 IU vitamin D supplement every day.
By about 6 months of age: your baby will continue to need breast milk (or formula). During this stage iron stores are decreasing, so it is time to introduce iron-rich solid foods! Try ground nuts/seeds or nut/seed butters, avocado, soft breads, beans, peas, legumes, tofu, or sweet potatoes. You can also try adding iron-fortified infant cereals to different recipes such as muffins or pancakes.
By 1 year of age: work towards feeding your child 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day. Babies and toddlers have small tummies and high needs for energy. Use higher fat foods such as avocado, nuts/seeds, dips and spreads, and added fat to help them meet their needs for energy.
For toddlers: include at least 3-4 foods out of the 4 food groups at a meal and 2-3 snacks
*Before 2 years of age: plant-based, milk-type beverages such as almond milk or soy milk are not recommended. They do not have enough nutrition to meet the needs of your growing baby. Continue with the soy-based formula until age 2.
If you’ve decided to make the move to a vegan diet for you baby or toddler,
here are some key nutrients to be aware of.
Many foods within the vegan diet will contain some protein and protein needs for vegan children is only slightly higher than non-vegan children. Make sure to include protein-rich foods at all meals including beans, lentils, peas, soy, tofu, tempeh, ground nuts/seeds or nut/seed butters. There is no need to combine foods at meals to create complete proteins as we previously thought.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods and is also found in some fortified foods such as infant cereals and pre-made foods. As it is difficult to include enough fortified foods in a baby’s diet consistently (we all know about picky eaters!), it is important to supplement as deficiency can have serious negative health effects for growing children. Aim to give your toddler 0.9 mcg of vitamin B12 daily. Vegan breastfeeding mothers should make sure they are getting at least 2.8 mcg of vitamin B12 daily.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in babies and young children. Iron is essential for growth and brain development. Vegetarians may require an intake of 1.8 times more iron than non-vegetarians. Offer iron rich foods at least 2 to 3 times each day to help your baby meet their needs. Vegan food sources of iron include: fortified cereals, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, broccoli, kale, and green beans. A 7 to 12 month old baby needs 11 mg and a 1 to 3 year old toddler needs 7mg of iron daily. As vitamin C helps to increase absorption of iron, pair your iron-containing foods with tomatoes, citrus, melon, strawberries, broccoli, or bell peppers for an added boost.
Calcium is very important in the growing years to build strong and health bones and teeth. There are quite a few sources of calcium in the vegan diet including breast milk, soy-based formula (advised to continue until age 2), and calcium-fortified tofu, almond butter or ground almonds, and beans, peas and lentils.
Vitamin D needs can be met through a combination of infant-formula, milk-alternatives, and supplements. To prevent deficiency, babies less than 1 year of age need 400 IU per day and 600 IU is recommended for toddlers 1 to 3 years of age.
Omega-3 fats are important for brain development and eye health. Vegan food sources of omega-3 include: ground walnuts, flaxseed oil, ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, hemp seeds, and canola oil. Aim to give your 1 to 3 year old toddler 1.4 grams a specific omega-3 fat called ALA daily – which is approximately half a teaspoon of flaxseed oil daily.
As many of these nutrients are critical in the growing years I would strongly advise ALL parents thinking of raising their children with a vegan diet to consult a dietitian or other healthcare professional. This information is for educational purposes and not to be substituted for advice from a medical professional.