Raising your child vegan- is it dangerous? A dietitian’s perspective

Yvonne O'Halloran

Veganism has risen in popularity over the past decade . More and more individuals are becoming aware that it’s not just animals who are slaughtered that suffer, but the conditions that animals in the dairy and egg industry are just as bad, and in some cases worse. This has led to many transitioning from vegetarianism to veganism or going cold turkey (pardon the pun) and going vegan when they were previously consuming meat, dairy and eggs. This increase popularity in the vegan lifestyle by many has resulted in more children being raised vegan, many from conception/birth. As this lifestyle is moving away from the norm society has not taken too well to it and there is a lot of questions, worries and sometimes anger from family or friends who do not understand this way of living. This usually comes from a place of love, but all these doubts and questions raised by those close to vegan families usually results in the parent questioning their ability to raise a healthy vegan child.

Can you raise a healthy vegan child?

The answer is absolutely YES! The vegan lifestyle has been recognised as safe for all stages of the life cycle by the leading Dietetic associations and academies including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and even athletes. When it comes to feeding your infant or child a vegan diet there can be a lot of uncertainty and the lack of support from other health professionals, even conventional dietitian’s. This is usually from a lack of education on plant based diets and their health benefits. Studies have shown that vegan children meet or exceed the recommendations for most nutrients and that vegan children typically have higher intakes of fiber and lower intakes of saturated fats and cholesterol than their omnivore friends. A plant-based diet is typically higher in antioxidants and phytonutrients due to the increased intake of fruits and vegetables in the diet leading to a strong immune system.

Nutrition for infants 0-6 months

Infants rely on milk as their primary source of nutrition and should be the focus at this stage. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months as it reduces the infants risk of developing colds, asthma, type 2 diabetes, allergies, ear infections, infectious diseases and obesity later in life. Breastmilk is a perfect food for your baby, but if its not possible donor milk is also an option. A breastfeeding mother usually experiences faster postpartum weight loss and a reduced chance of developing certain cancers/diabetes later in life. However, If neither breastfeeding or donor milk is possible then baby formula is a good choice. The only infant formula currently available that is completely vegan for 0-6 months is called bebe mandorle, a French formula using hydrolyzed rice protein and is gluten free, soy free, dairy free, lactose free and palm oil free. Most soy based formulas contain vitamin D that is derived from animal sources so is not completely vegan. Perhaps there will be more vegan based formulas coming out in the future.

It is important that the breastfeeding mother maintains her levels of vitamin D by getting daily sun exposure to face and arms for 5-15 minutes a day (or a vitamin D supplement if not getting regular exposure) and takes a B12 supplement of about 2500 mcg/week. Mum needs to make sure she is having a healthy well balanced diet during breastfeeding to ensure her child gets adequate nutrients too. She must ensure she is having plenty of healthy fats in her diet like flax meal, chia seeds, walnuts and hemp hearts (some will also supplement with a marine algae also). Iodine should be included from sources like sushi, seaweed, and iodized salt. She must keep hydrated by drinking water and consume plenty of wholegrains, legumes fruits and vegetables. This ensures her baby will get all the nutrients they require through her breastmilk.

At about 6 months (but not before 4 months/17 weeks) you can start to introduce some solids to your babies diet. Its about now that a breastfed babies iron stores may start to decrease so starting them on a iron fortified infant cereal mixed with breast milk (or formula) is a good start. Other foods can slowly be introduced from 6-8 months (usually one every 3-4 days to check for adverse reactions/allergies) such as avocado, sweet potato, carrot, peas, bananas, peaches and applesauce. High allergen foods like peanut butter can be tested at this time also as research shows its better to introduce these foods early on. These should all be thoroughly cooked/mashed. Remember solids at this age are just for fun and breastmilk/formula is still their primary source of nutrition until 1 year.

Nutrition for babies 8 months +

You can now start to mix these foods together to create different flavours along with crackers, well cooked pastas, rice*, quinoa, bread, cooked and mashed tofu and beans or dry cereal. Regular sun exposure is important for vitamin D levels (about 30 minutes- 2 hours per week with only a diaper) but never allow baby to burn or place them in the hottest midday sun. Vitamin D fortified foods are also great to add in but if there is little to no sun exposure a vitamin D supplement may be recommended. Babies should be given B12 fortified foods along with a B12 supplement- babies at this age need about 0.5 mcg per day. Remember you may have to give your child a food up to 15 times before they like it so do not give up. Breastmilk can be continued as long as the mother and child are happy to do so, but after 1 year the child can have some plant beverages included in their diet. The benefits of breastfeeding continue past 1 year and the WHO recommends breastfeeding along with solids until 2 years and beyond.

*Rice contains arsenic and so it’s best to limit this in children under 5. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to limit rice products to 1 serving a day (e.g. infant rice cereal) and less than 1 serving a week of rice drinks, rice pasta or rice cakes.

What about BLW? (baby led weaning)

This is another way of introducing solid foods to babies at around 6 months of age and is becoming more popular. You start with whole but manageable pieces and skip pureed and mashed foods completely. Choking hazards like whole grapes, popcorn, nuts and raisins are avoided. BLW basically teaches the baby to feed themselves and helps them to develop motor skills and gives them more control of what they want and when they want to stop eating. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found  that babies who eat this way are not at a higher risk of choking, however its always recommended that parents are up to date on their CPR. I recommend you go with what you feel comfortable with and it is largely dependant on your childs’ personality. Just remember, foods should be soft enough for baby to be able to mash the food with her gums or dissolvable in the mouth. Remove all skins and peels and avoid foods with added sugar or salt.

What are the main nutrients of concern for babies/children?

Iron: Sources include chickpeas, lentils, tofu, peanut butter, prunes & quinoa.

Calcium: Sources include calcium set tofu, calcium fortified soy milk, calcium fortified orange juice, dried figs, tahini & green leafy vegetables.

Protein: Sources include tofu, quinoa, hummus, lentils, peanut butter, beans, veggie burgers, hemp hearts, chia seeds, flax meal, nuts, broccoli and peas.

Vitamin D: Sources include fortified soy milk and sunlight. (soy better choice than almond or rice milks as its higher in protein)

Vitamin B12: Sources include fortified plant milks, nutritional yeast and mock meats. B12 supplementation is recommended.

Zinc: Sources include wholegrains, tempeh, legumes, nuts and sunflower seeds.

Iodine: Breastmilk and infant formula contains iodine but once your child starts eating a variety of foods you can include kelp or seaweed into their diet. Some breads are also fortified with iodine.

Omega 3 fatty acids: Sources include chia seeds, hemp hearts, brussel sprouts, walnuts, & flaxseeds (ground).

If you have any particular concerns about your child’s nutrition email yvonne@livingvegan.com or ask a question on our Facebook page @livingveganofficial.

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