Without a doubt the “vegan diet” (avoidance of all animal based foods) seems to be one of the more popular of our time. Whilst some follow this diet out of concerns for animal welfare or the environment, many people follow it for it’s nutritional benefits. A vegan diet has been shown to reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain types of cancer. In 2016 the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated their statement on Vegetarian and Vegan diets, stating that they are safe to follow at all stages of the life cycle when appropriately planned (including in infants, children and pregnant and lactating women).
A good vegan diet requires more effort than just pasta and sauce, especially for children, who have very particular nutritional needs. If you are going to embark on a vegan diet, having a thorough understanding of the nutrients that are at risk and having a plan for how you will meet them, is key. Below is a summary of the key nutrients you need to consider for children following a vegan diet.
Energy (calories) – The vegan diet can be lower in energy because of the large number of vegetables consumed. Whilst this might be a good thing for adults looking to lose a bit of weight, for children who are growing rapidly it can be a problem. Balancing the vegetables in a meal with good quality wholegrain carbohydrates (eg rice, pearl barley, quinoa, wholemeal pasta) and a protein source, will help ensure each meal has adequate energy.
Protein – If a wide variety of plant food is eaten and energy intake is adequate, then it is generally agreed that protein intake will meet your child’s needs. Without adequate amounts of protein and energy, children can fall behind with their growth. The key here is eating from a wide range of plant based foods. Unlike animal foods, not all plant based foods contain the “complete” range of amino acids required by our bodies. By eating a wide variety of different plant based foods, a complete range of amino acids will be consumed. Good sources of plant based proteins include: soy products, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. These higher protein plant foods should be consumed at each and every meal.
Iron – Iron from plant foods (called non-haem iron) is not as well absorbed as animal sources. Phytates and polyphenols (naturally occurring compounds in vegetables) inhibit the absorption of iron, whilst the presence of vitamin C (naturally present in many fruits and vegetables) can help improve absorption. Over time the human body is able to adapt to a diet with low iron availability ( a measure of how well iron can be absorbed from foods). Inadequate iron in pregnancy can have serious affects on the developing infant, for this reason it’s advised that an iron supplement should be used. Breastmilk provides adequate iron to meet the needs of infants up until 6 months of age. Beyond 6 months of age, good vegan sources of iron include hummus, cooked mashed legumes and lentils as well as tofu.Whole grain cereals are higher in iron. Fortified foods such as weetbix, should be used regularly in the diets of young children to help achieve adequate iron. Infants who are not breastfed should use a soy formula under 1 yr of age.
Calcium – Calcium absorption from plant foods high in oxalate is generally poor (eg spinach). White beans, tahini, chia, calcium set tofu and almonds are all reasonable sources of calcium.
For children their most reliable source of calcium will be from a calcium fortified plant milk such as soy milk. Under 6 months of age, breastmilk or soy formula will provide your child’s calcium requirements. Between 6 months and 1 yr breastfeeding or soy formula should be continued and calcium fortified soy milk can be used in cooking and to make up breakfast cereals. (see note below on suitable milks for children).
Iodine – Good sources of iodine for Vegan’s include sea vegetables (eg nori sheets) and iodised salt. Pregnant women should always take an iodine supplement to ensure the adequacy of their diet. In Australia all commercial bread products that are not labelled as “artisan or organic” must be fortified with iodine. For most children using these fortified products together with iodised salt in cooking should be sufficient to meet their needs. For infants under 1yr salt shouldn’t be used in cooking. Breastmilk or formula provides sufficient iodine.
Vitamin B -12 – B12 is not found in plant foods. Pregnant and lactating women need to pay particular care to ensure their diets are adequate. As breastmilk will provide the sole source of B12 during the first 6 months of age it is vitally important that breastfeeding mothers regularly eat or drink foods fortified with B12, or take supplements. B12 fortified foods in Australia include soy milk, soy burgers and alike, as well as some yeast spreads. Checking the ingredient list of these products will tell you whether they are fortified or not. The nutrition information panel will tell you how much B12 is present in the food. A pregnant or lactating Mum drinking 650ml of fortified soy milk each day (eg Sanitarium So Good) would have an adequate intake of B12.
Vitamin D – as most vitamin D is obtained from sunlight, vegan infants and children will generally receive sufficient amounts so long as their skin is exposed to sunlight each day. Breastmilk is a poor source of vitamin D. For breastfed vegan infants a supplement may be required, especially during the winter months or if the mother’s own stores are low. Your GP or paediatrician can advise on this.
Fatty acids – EPA and DHA are n-3 fatty acids that are important for brain, eye and heart health.
Seafoods such as oily fish (eg salmon) are some of the best sources, whilst meat and eggs provide lesser amounts. ALA is a plant based n-3 fatty acid that our body can convert into EPA and DHA. ALA is found in nuts and seeds, with flaxseed, chia and walnuts all being good sources. Olive oil is also a good source.
Choosing the right plant based milk for your child is critical to ensuring they are getting enough energy, protein and calcium in their diet. A calcium fortified milk soy milk is the best choice for vegan children. Ideally chose a soy milk that contains at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml and preferably one that is also fortified with vitamin B12. Depending on how much of this milk your child drinks, they may not need additional B12 supplements. Soy milks have some of the highest protein contents of plant based milks and are therefore ideal for growing children. Other plant based milks include almond, rice and coconut. These milks however, tend to be lower in energy and protein and therefore are not the first choice for vegan children. If your child has an allergy to soy products speak with an accredited practising dietitian about the best choice of alternative milk that will tick all of their dietary needs.
Vegan Meal Plan for a toddler or pre-schooler
2 weetbix with 1/2 cup so good essential soy milk
To serve: sprinkle 1 teaspoon of chia seeds and 2 TBS stewed apples
1 cup (200ml) so good essential milk
wholegrain crackers with 2 TBS peanut (or cashew/almond) butter and 1 TBS sultanas
Wholegrain toast fingers (1- 2 slices) with vegan margarine and 2 TBS hummus
Kale chips (made with olive oil and a sprinkle of iodised salt) and cucumber sticks
Smoothie made with 200ml so good essential milk, 1/2 banana, 2 TBS coconut yoghurt, 1 teaspoon chia seeds, 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup and cinnamon to taste
Roasted seaweed sheets and cut up grapes
chickpea, broccoli and tofu curry in a mild coconut sauce served with 1/4 cup cooked basmati rice
soy life soy yoghurt with a sprinkle of toasted muesli (vegan variety)
This example meal plan meets a 2 -5 yr old’s needs for calcium, iron, iodine, vitamin B12 and protein.
Notes: Analysis is based on using So good regular soy milk which is fortified with both calcium and vitamin B12, Helgas wholemeal bread with grains which is baked with iodised salt and soy life calcium fortified yoghurt.