Nutrition myths

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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

Breakfast:

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

Morning Snack:

wholegrain crackers with 2 TBS peanut (or cashew/almond) butter and 1 TBS sultanas

Lunch:

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

Afternoon snack

Roasted seaweed sheets and cut up grapes

Dinner:

chickpea, broccoli and tofu curry in a mild coconut sauce served with 1/4 cup cooked basmati rice

Dessert:

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.

 

Julia @Bloom


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Milk substitutes are rapidly gaining popularity in the modern food supply. They’re chosen for different reasons by different people  – allergies, intolerances, vegan diets, environmental concerns, and of course health benefits. Do you choose any plant based milks in your family diet?

Readily available plant based milks include almond, coconut, soy, oat, rice, as well as couple of other more obscure varieties like cashew, hemp seed and flax seed milks.

Home made milk substitutes are also becoming more popular, with people enjoying knowing where their food is coming from, exactly what goes into it, and the lower level of environment impact from food prepared in the home.

Like with all food selection there are lots of factors that will guide your individual choice, depending on what’s important to you –  things like taste, nutrition, health conditions, availablilty, cost, and environmental sustainability.

I’m all for the availability of dairy milk substitutes. They’ve been a great source of nutrition for many of my clients, and I’ve personally included them in my diet over the last decade since having children with food allergies. Back then the choice available was much smaller, and asking for anything more exotic than a soy latte was unheard of!

These days I actually enjoy a variety of plant based milks in my coffee or with granola for breakfast, but I also drink cow’s milk regularly and eat other milk based products like cheese. Dietary variety is a key factor in meeting nutrient requirements after all!

If you want to make sure your milk choice is helping meet your nutrition needs, there are a few key factors you should look out for.

Energy – This varies widely between the type of milk you are choosing, and is dependant on the amount of fat, carbohydrate (sugar) and protein in each milk. Low energy milks include choices like skim cows milk, rice and almond milk, and higher energy choices include full fat dairy milks, and traditionally produced coconut milk. If you’re choosing you’re milk based on its energy content, look at the nutrition panel and compare brands for their 100ml serving. But don’t just look at energy content, by doing so you may be doing your body out of lots of important nutrients below.

Protein – Again this varies widely between milk sources and brands. Items like rice milk are typically very low in protein, as is the base ingredient of rice, but surprisingly to some people, so are most nut milks, as the protein portion of the nut is mostly thrown away. Cow’s milk tends to be the highest in protein at around 3.5-4g/100ml, and soy milk is typically the highest protein plant based milk, averaging around the same . While calcium fortified soy milk is nutritionally my plant based milk of choice, its important to note that it’s not the right choice for everyone (for example some children are also allergic to soy protein, and some soy milks are not good choices on a low FODMAP diet).

Fat – Full cream cow’s milk is often rejected by people due to its higher saturated fat content when compared to skim and reduced fat choices. However fat is an important source of energy in the diet, and children under 2 years (when not drinking breastmilk or formula) are encouraged to use only full cream milks. Fat also plays a role in satiety, or how full we feel after eating and drinking, so many people prefer to use full cream milk for this reason. Coconut milk for cooking has 16 g/100ml fat, where as coconut milks designed for drinking have less (eg Sanatarium coconut milk 2.1g/100ml), but be aware most of this is saturated fat too. The source of fats in other commercial plant based milks is mostly unsaturated fats, but may also be an added fat like sunflower or canola oil, added for texture and energy content, rather than a naturally occurring fat.

Calcium – Plant based milks like rice, soy, coconut and nut milks are not naturally high in calcium. This means to meet your calcium requirements you will either need to choose a fortified commercial variety, choose enough other sources of dietary calcium, or take a calcium supplement. My personal choice is to choose a calcium fortified variety, and we recommend those that contain at least 120mg Calcium per 100ml.

Sugar – Many ( but not all) commercial plant based milks are sweetened with sugar or sugar alternatives to improve flavour. Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk (and in human breast milk ), and our body usually produces the lactase enzyme from birth to be able to digest this. If you are lactose intolerant, all plant based milks are suitable, however simply swapping to a lactose free cow’s milk could be your best nutritional choice. If making plant based milks at home, keep in mind that large amounts of added sugars will add extra energy to your diet.

Iodine – Cow’s milk and dairy products are a source of dietary Iodine – an important nutrient for thyroid hormone production – especially in pregnancy and childhood. However, milk is not the high source of iodine it once was, since dairy industry stopped using iodophores to clean milk storage vats in the 1960s, and should not be relied upon as the primary source of iodine in the diet.

Plant based milks however are significantly lower in iodine, and swapping these into your diet will mean you definitely need to look for another source to boost your iodine intake.

The good news is there are other great non dairy sources in the diet like fish, shellfish and seaweed and eggs, which all contain more iodine per 100g than milk. On top of this, commercial bakers in Australia must use iodised salt in bread making, so there is an additional source of iodine readily available. As dietitians we typically advocate for using less salt in the diet, but where salt is used, choose iodised salt (unless you have a medical reason not to do so!).

B12 – Cows milk can be an important source of B12, particularly for vegetarians who don’t eat eggs. Some commercial soy milks are fortified with B12 (like Sanitarium So good Essential). If your are vegetarian, it’s worth reading your food labels to check how you can best meet your needs.

So choose your milk wisely, as it is an important source of nutrition in your day. If cow’s milk is not for you, that’s ok, but it’s not always as easy as a simple swap. If your favourite milk choice is lacking in a certain nutrient, make sure you boost your diet with other foods to cover the gaps. For the best individually tailored dietary advice, see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, particularly if you or your family have any additional health issues.

x Angela


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We. Love. Summer!

Here at Bloom we do, really, love summer.

And we happily welcome the arrival of the warmer weather, school holidays, Aussie Christmas, and the Bloom Nutrition Studio seasonal newsletter Summer 17/18 edition!

Click the mini-mag link below ⤵️, to get our collection of summer nutrition tidbits for you and your family.

Eat well, live well and enjoy your summer 💛 !

Angela @ Bloom 🌿