Time and again the benefits of vegan diets have been reinstated: whether that be in regard to sustainability or personal health benefits. However, the vast majority of these discussions, studies and experiences discuss adult veganism leaving a question begging: is a vegan diet safe for children?
Short answer: Yes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has previously stated that a vegan diet is “appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.” However, when it comes to the youngest part of this spectrum it is paramount to ensure that, as with any diet, a developing child gets the range and quantities of nutrients necessary for optimal growth and development.
In this guide, we’ll dive into (more or less) everything you need to know about keeping vegan kids healthy. We’ll start off with the risk factors—as it’s important nobody overlooks them—and then look at the many ways parents can easily combat them in order to give their plant-based child the best possible start to life.
Before we start: it is also worth noting that no advice found here or online is a substitute for advice from pediatricians or nutritional specialists. For the best possible advice regarding the specific needs of your child, we greatly encourage you to seek out professional guidance which can help in many ways: from identifying potential deficiencies to providing guided meal plans.
Necessary Nutrients for Vegan Children
While you may be well aware of the rise of veganism in both children and adults, you should never impose a diet on your child without considering the bigger picture. Like with adult vegan diets infants and young people will need to bolster their intake of Vitamin B12, Calcium and Omega-3, given the relative lack of these micronutrients in vegan diets as a whole. However, vegan children will also have other specific needs which require careful monitoring. According to M.D. Manisha Panchal these are down to the fact that “Infants and young children simply require [proportionally] more protein, calcium and vitamins D and B12 than adults”.
These should be taken as the key nutrients which require monitoring for youth in a vegan diet. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of ways to bolster these nutrients to ensure your child will never be deficient while maintaining a vegan diet. Of course, as children grow up their requirements for each nutrient will begin to vary, shifting up or down. Thus it’s important to keep in mind the ever-changing requirements for vegan children as they slowly approach adulthood.
In this guide we’re going to handle each key nutrient one by one.
But first, let’s talk about new-borns.
Veganism for new-borns
New-borns will receive all their key nutrients from breastmilk or formula. It’s worth noting that there are plenty of soy-based vegan formulas available. Where possible, exclusively breastfed (or given formula) for at least six months, with breastfeeding continuing at least up to (or beyond) the twelve-month mark. Dietitian Kaleigh McMordie has suggested that “vegan infants may need to be breastfed longer than non-vegans since breast milk is such a great source of nutrients.”
Both breastmilk and formula are chock-full of all the key nutrients required for good development within this early period of life—meaning parents may find this one of the easiest periods in catering to their child’s nutritional needs.
That said, it is very important that if you are breastfeeding that the mother is bolstering their own diet with additional nutrients in order to ensure enough nutrients can be passed on. This will, of course, require further supplements for vegan mothers to reach slightly raised daily intake values—all of which can be found and referenced to here.
Of course, during this stage there are plenty of nutrients a mother will need to be aware of, but for vegan mothers the key additions will be the usual offenders: Vitamin B12, Calcium and Omega-3.
Key Micronutrient for vegan kids
Touted as one of the most important nutrients for growth, with deficiencies resulting in stunted growth, calcium definitely shouldn’t be overlooked—especially in the youngest age groups. Fortunately, calcium can be located within many vegan foods which are either naturally rich in or fortified with the mineral.
Most analogous to a non-vegan diet, fortified alternative milks can be an excellent source of calcium. However it’s worth remembering that the nutritional content of plant-based milks is markedly different to cows milk—notably less protein and fat—meaning that alternative milks should not be treated as a direct substitute for cows milk.
Foods like tofu, beans (particularly black eyed peas), seeds and fortified orange juices can also be ready supplies of calcium.
The required amount of calcium varies greatly between different age groups: so ensure that you are providing adequate amounts during each stage of life.
As children grow, their Vitamin B12 requirements slowly increase. As most vegans and vegetarians will know, plant-based diets run the risk B12 deficiency due to the nutrient only being found in animal products. B12 deficiency has been liked to stroke and can be found to have some neurological effects if left unchecked for incredibly long periods. Fortunately vegans are well aware of B12 deficiency, and as such many vegan foods are fortified with it.
Good options for children are: fortified alternative milks, fortified cereals and plant-based meats. Nutritional yeasts and yeast extracts are also high in B12, however these are often disliked by young people.
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been considered incredibly important for children, as certain studies have found that the micronutrient is beneficial for brain health and development.
While many believe Omega-3 to be only found in fish oil, vegans can in fact find it in a number of different places. Walnuts, flax seeds, kale, chia seeds, hemp seeds and linseeds all offer plant-base versions of Omega-3 meaning that the essential Omega-3 can still be obtained by vegan children.
Iron and Zinc
Babies and young children need proportionately more iron than older children or adults, and despite Anaemia being one of the most common nutrient deficiencies around the world, with under fives being the most vulnerable group, that doesn’t mean your vegan child should be deficient.
Vegan children can most easily get Iron and Zinc from fortified cereals, tofu or beans such as chickpeas or kidney beans. That said, the nutrients can also be found in many other places from pulses and nut butters to dark green vegetables such as broccoli.
Often overlooked by adults given the fact that we can produce it from ultraviolet light exposure, Vitamin D is an incredibly important vitamin.
Thankfully, fortified orange juices or alternative milks are often fortified with Vitamin D making it easy to come by. Furthermore, half an hour of sun exposure without sunscreen can produce a good amount of vitamin D. However, before you start pushing your child out into the sun, consider that sun exposure (without sunscreen) can also increase the risk of skin cancer; so it is much safer and healthier to intake vitamin D from fortified foods or supplements.
Vitamin D is also a particularly special case, as it is one of the few micronutrients which babies do not get a lot from breastmilk. This led the American Academy of Paediatrics to suggest that every breastfed infant should be given vitamin D supplements through multivitamin drops, or other means.
When it comes to micronutrients, whether you’re an adult or a child, supplements can be a sure-fire way to ensure you are never lacking. With young children especially it can be simplest to ensure that all necessary nutrients are provided within natural or fortified foods, meaning that supplements should come as a last resort to ensure adequate levels of micronutrients.
While vegan diets lack certain micronutrients, a good, balanced vegan diet will be able to provide adequate levels of all of the necessary major nutrients for both children and adults. However, as before, there are a few things to keep in mind.
In particular Dr Manisha Panchal has made clear that “babies and toddlers need diets high in fat and protein and low in fiber, the exact opposite of many vegan diets.” This means that “You will need to make sure your baby gets foods like cooked beans, lentils, tofu, avocados, soy yogurt and nuts.”
While protein deficiency is often exclaimed as veganism’s bogeyman, there are plenty of ways to obtain adequate levels of protein for children on a vegan diet.
Most vegans will turn to legumes (beans, peas, peanuts, lentils quinoa and soy) for protein, and this is a great way to go to provide young people with protein as well. Soy, in particular, in its many forms—from Tofu to soy milk—can offer decent levels of protein. Quinoa is another one worth singling out as it can act as a solid staple in place of carb-heavy rice, pasta or potato while providing far more protein.
Vegan substitute meats are also generally fortified with good levels of protein; however these will only be suitable for slightly older children given their form.
While many vegans will avoid many forms of fat it is, as per Dr Panchal’s comment above, incredibly important that babies and toddlers receive the levels of fat which they need.
This, first of all, means that parents should avoid feeding their young children low-fat vegan options. But, thankfully, it is incredibly easy to find good sources of vegan fats for children. The humble avocado—in many ways a vegan’s best friend—is a wonderful source of fat for children while coconuts and other fat-rich fruit and vegetables are also available.
Although many individuals, particularly non-vegans, are deficient in dietary fibre, a vegan diet may in fact provide too much fibre for a developing child. This can lead to some issues within the GI tract from relatively superficial problems such as gas, diarrhea, and fussiness to more serious issues of poor absorption of the micronutrients we discussed earlier.
To help avoid too much fiber you can first begin by introducing fiber-rich foods into the diet gradually: this means slowly increasing the number of grains, soy, fiber-rich veggies and beans in order to not shock the system. Certain ingredients, such as beans, grains, nuts and seeds, can also be soaked and properly drained before consumption to reduce their overall fiber content and improve digestion.
Carbohydrates and Beyond
Carbohydrate intake is relatively unaffected by a vegan diet, with all carb-rich staples being vegan-friendly. However, one piece of advice is to choose your carb staples wisely based on their other nutritional contents. For example, choosing quinoa over rice, potatoes, pasta or bread can bolster the protein content of a young person’s diet. And, as discussed above, protein is incredibly important in early development.
Living a Vegan Life
While the early stages of a young vegan’s life will require parents to focus on meeting dietary quotas, it’s important to consider the wider ranging impacts of being vegan on a child: both positive and negative.
Socialising your vegan child
While it can be easy to adapt to being vegan at home, when children start attending school, going on playdates or attending birthday parties their dietary requirements can become a problem. While on the surface this can be combatted by providing packed lunches, there’s the further issue of a vegan child simply feeling left out and isolated due to their diet.
While the solution to this will vary from person to person, one fundamental is ensuring that your child knows why they are vegan. This means explaining some of the more complex ideologies behind veganism, to ensure that they can build the ideological resilience to remain vegan.
But, and I can’t stress this enough, you should never scold or belittle your child if they do choose to consume non-vegan foods when out of the house. And this leads perfectly onto our next point.
Let the decision to be vegan be theirs (once they are old enough)
Your baby won’t be little forever, and it’s clear that at some point they will want to be deciding, to some capacity, what they are eating. While parents can provide ideological guidelines and arguments for being and remaining vegan, you must accept that it is their decision if they want to eat meat or animal products when out of the house. But, that said, many people who are brought up vegans and taught of the importance of veganism will become strong advocates.
But, just as you want the choice to be theirs, you should help them with any peer pressures they may be facing regarding their eating habits. For example, if it becomes apparent that they are eating animal products purely to fit in, you should try to find ways to bolster their confidence in remaining vegan. But, again, only if this is their decision.
Instilling Critical Thinking
By teaching young vegans the reasons why veganism is so important—both for their health and the health of the planet—you can help them to overcome some of the relative brainwashing forced upon many children by the social norms of eating meat, eggs and milk. By basing your arguments in fact, this can help children develop strong critical thinking skills, helping them to find alternative ways to approach their lifestyle, social or work-based problems in the future.
Some kids might not be suitable for veganism
Whether you are a devout vegan or not, when bringing up a child your focus should always be on their overall health. In this way, it is important to recognize that certain individuals may struggle with vegan diets. There are three key situations in which you should consider giving up their vegan diet, at least temporarily.
- If they are a picky eater they may struggle to achieve a truly balanced diet when eating vegan. Fortunately, this can be combatted by either starting their vegan diet as soon as they are weaned, or by finding alternative ways or foods to deliver their necessary nutrients.
- If they are underweight or malnourished it is paramount that they obtain all their necessary nutrients as fast as possible. Although this can often be achieved on a vegan diet, it may be easier for some to switch (at least temporarily) to a non-vegan diet to ensure your child can gain all the right nutrients to continue developing healthily.
- Food allergies. With allergies to legumes, nuts and/or soy it can be difficult to provide young people with the necessary amounts of major nutrients such as fat and protein. As such if your child has certain allergies it could be worth shifting their diet to become vegetarian or omnivorous.
Professional guidance is a must
While all the information here is based on rigorous research, it cannot act as a substitute to professional advice from a pediatrician or a nutritionist. Such professionals will not only be able to provide specific advice relating to your child and their needs in particular, but they will also be able to help you plan meals and locate nutrition-rich foods within your budget.
As such, it’s important to discuss the vegan diet with your doctor to ensure that it will provide your child with all the nutrients required for optimal development.
That said, not all pediatricians or doctors will be well versed in vegan diets for children, so if you are struggling to receive adequate advice from such sources it may be beneficial to approach a nutritionist or dietary specialist.
Can my child be vegan?
As all this information is testament to, a vegan diet is more than adequate for a child when handled correctly. But that second point cannot be stressed enough, meaning it may take some research and planning to ensure your child gets all the nutrients they need. But, to be honest, any parent should be doing such research anyway for a normal diet.
Growing up vegan also is likely to have a number of benefits, introducing ideas of critical thinking and ecological responsibility early on. Not to mention that the planet will thank you for it, as going vegan has been said to be the “single biggest way” to reduce our environmental impact.
Thus, is it possible for your child to have a healthy childhood as a vegan, but it may also be the best thing for them and the planet at large.