Raising Vegan Children: Key Nutritional Advice to Consider
A quick scan of the wellness corner of the Internet, and you’ll know veganism is on the increase. And there’s a ton of scientific data to prove it. According to The Vegan Society, the number of plant-based eating enthusiasts in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2018i. The reasons behind such a staggering rise in veganism are numerous: delicious, nutrient-dense vegan recipes have taken social media by storm; top vegan athletes are banging the drum for plant-based diets, proving that vegetables can make you fit, healthy, and strong; documentaries have revealed the shocking realities of agriculture on animal welfare and the planet; and studies continue to highlight the impressive health benefits of veganism. But since 42% of vegan Brits are between the ages of 15 and 34, the youth of today could be persuaded to rear a generation of plant-munching babiesii. And this begs to question: is veganism good for growing children?
The headlines centred on veganism in childhood are the well-founded concerns over nutrient deficiencies, faltering growth, and inadequate energy intake. Indeed, we can’t ignore the nutritional deficiencies that tend to blight the vegan community, especially when it comes to vitamin B12, iodine, and iron. Without these key nutrients, a child’s health and happiness risks being severely compromised.
Some would argue vegan diets aren’t enormously energy-dense, either; you have to eat a lot of food to feel properly energised. Trouble is, children don’t usually have voracious appetites, and so cramming in enough calories can often prove difficult. If a child’s diet fails to provide enough fats, protein, and calories, it’s safe to say growth will undoubtedly be affected.
Then there’s also the issue of fussiness. It is entirely possible that a child won’t warm to the idea of chia seeds, walnuts, or dark greens, and will instead stick to a diet of mainly beige, which – we can all agree – isn’t healthy or balanced, especially for a growing child. Simply put, pickiness will make it even harder for a child to meet their nutritional needs on a vegan diet.
There’s a strong case to suggest veganism in children has been wrongly vilified due to misinformation and nutritional myths perpetuated by the media. Both the NHS and The British Dietetic Association (Britain’s professional body for dieticians) have confirmed a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy for people of any ageiii. Granted children eat plentiful, varied, and balanced diets, they should receive all the nutrients needed to thrive optimally.
The health benefits of veganism are pretty remarkable, too. Thanks to the absence of saturated fat, children eating a plant-based diet are more likely to experience a reduced risk of heart disease, type-two diabetes, and even obesity in adulthood. Veganism also provides the perfect opportunity for families to educate children on healthy eating principles from a young age, especially since the diet will mainly consist of home-cooked meals.
All things considered, surely the real issue here is whether children are healthy – not whether they’re vegan, or not? You only need to observe the widespread gorging on junk food, fizzy drinks, and sweets in the school playground to know there are plenty of children with bad diets. What’s more, some parents will mistakenly conflate the nutritional needs of a child with those of an adult. For instance, while an abundance of high-fibre foods is appropriate for adults, too much roughage can fill children up quickly, meaning they won’t always have space for other nutrient-dense food. Let’s not forget there are potential pitfalls in every diet – not just veganism.
The bottom line is that any parent who wants to raise their child a vegan must be well informed. At the heart of a healthy vegan diet is variety – and plenty of it. Failure to provide an assortment of colourful wholefoods could jeopardise a child’s health and put them at risk of developing deficiencies. The key nutrients to pay close attention to are vitamin B12, omega-3, iodine, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and protein (see below). As with any diet, it’s also paramount to encourage children to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables, and reduce food high in calories, sugar, saturated fat, and salt. A diet of vegan nuggets, meatless burgers, and fake bacon (‘fakin’) doesn’t make the cut.
Beyond carefully planning a child’s diet to include all the essential nutrients, it can be enormously helpful to add a comprehensive multivitamin and omega-3 (flaxseed oil) supplement to this mix, too, Think of this as an insurance policy; a simple way to plug any nutritional gaps a child may encounter through eating a vegan diet alone. Find out more about supplements for vegans here.
To ensure a child is sufficiently energised and receives enough calories to support growth, focus on foods naturally high in fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and nut butters (side note: ensure all nuts and seeds are served ground as smooth butter to children under five). Incorporating regular snacks in between meals will also provide children with further opportunities to hit calorie targets. Try to include a rich source of vitamin C with every meal, too, since it will boost the absorption of iron.
Finally, to anyone toying with the idea of raising a vegan family, we’d urge you to seek advice from your GP – and if necessary – a dietician first. This way, you can be sure you’ve covered all the key bases.
Vegan-approved foods to feed your child
Fortified breakfast cereals, almonds (either ground or nut butter since whole nuts shouldn’t be given to children under five years old), dried apricots, dried figs, and prunes – best to give these at meals, as snacking on dried fruit may contribute to tooth decay.
Pulses, nuts, seeds, green leafy veggies, whole grains (brown rice, fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal breads). Add a serving of vitamin C (yellow peppers, citrus fruits, potatoes) to boost the absorption of iron.
Fortified breakfast cereals, fortified plant milks. Yeast extract is also rich in vitamin B12.
Seaweed and fortified soya toddler milk. The richest sources of iodine are found in fish and milk, so an iodine supplement is usually necessary. If choosing a multivitamin, be sure it contains relevant levels of iodine. Children between 6-12 years need 120 μg/day, and those over 12 years need 150 μg/day.
Fortified plant-based milks, although it can be hard to get vitamin D in sufficient quantities. Again, this is where a supplement will really help.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Rapeseed, flaxseed, soya oils, ground chia seeds and tofu.
Beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya products, hummus, tofu, soya mince, seeds and nuts (remember, these should be given ground or as smooth butter to children under five).
The Vegan Society. (2019). Statistics. Available online: https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics [Accessed 20 Mar. 2019].
The Vegan Society. (2019). Find out how many vegans are in Great Britain. Available online: https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/news/find-out-how-many-vegans-are-great-britain [Accessed 20 Mar. 2019].
nhs.uk. (2019). Vegetarian and vegan babies and children. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vegetarian-vegan-children [Accessed 20 Mar. 2019].
Bda.uk.com. (2019). The British Dietetic Association (BDA). Available online: https://www.bda.uk.com [Accessed 20 Mar. 2019].
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Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.