Vegetarian and vegan diets have been found to be healthful and advantageous at all stages of the life cycle. Even with this being true, women who decide to have children and choose to raise them on a vegan diet are often still met with some skepticism and questions, especially when the child is very young in the infant and toddler stages. Because most people are raised eating meat and dairy, led to believe that meat is necessary for iron and protein, and dairy is necessary for calcium, infants and toddlers raised vegan can be misunderstood. If you are vegan and considering having a child but worry that you will need to shift your dietary habits during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, or as your child grows, rest assured you and your child can still safely and healthily follow a vegan or plant-based diet.
Common nutrients that may fall short while following a full plant-based diet include iron, omega-3 fatty acids (specifically, DHA and EPA), zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Lactating women may need to pay special attention to omega-3 fatty acid, zinc, and vitamin B12 status, as the recommended dietary allowances for omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin B12 all increase during lactation. Although most vegetarians and vegans consume sufficient amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant sources of food (mostly found in chia seeds, flax meal and walnuts), the conversion rate of ALA to the active forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), in the body is low. To ensure all necessary needs are being met for mom and baby, supplements may be recommended for DHA, zinc, and vitamin B12. Many DHA supplements on the market are derived from fish. However, more recently, a variety of algae-based DHA supplements have become available to consumers. Consuming sufficient DHA is important for the baby’s growth and development, as it is a major structural component of cell membranes in the brain and retina, which develop substantially after birth. With the proper nutritional considerations, following a vegan diet while breastfeeding is still possible.
Infant is the age range from birth to one year old. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for at least the first 6 months of life and should be continued for as long as it is desired for mom and baby. If breastfeeding cannot be accomplished, soy based infant formulas are available for use to ensure infants are obtaining all necessary nutrients. For breastfeeding vegan infants, supplementation may be required if maternal intake of vitamin B12 or zinc are inadequate, while vitamin D and iron supplementation is recommended for all breastfeeding infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfed infants and infants consuming less than 1 liter of vitamin D fortified formula start on a supplement of 400 IU/day shortly after birth.
Iron is a particularly important nutrient for infants, as infants are at a greater risk for iron deficiency than other stages in the life cycle due to rapid growth. Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia (IDA) are associated with learning and intellectual delays. Because breast milk is low in iron, breastfed infants should be given an iron supplement starting at 4 months old until the introduction of iron-rich complementary foods. The AAP recommends 1 mg of supplemental iron per kg of body weight per day. Infants from moms with diabetes, growth restricted newborns, and preterm infants have lower iron stores at birth and are at greater risk for IDA, and as such may require human milk fortifiers to reach caloric and nutrient needs. For breastfed preterm infants, the AAP recommends 2 mg of supplemental iron per kg of body weight daily until the infant is weaned to iron-fortified formula or food.
At approximately six months old, infants can start to be introduced to complementary foods, beginning with iron-fortified infant cereal. Complementary foods should aim to be rich in energy, protein, iron, and zinc. Around 7-8 months old, protein sources such as tofu, dried beans, and meat analogs can start to be introduced. Around age one, soy milk can begin to be fed to plant-based infants. When choosing a soy milk, look for one that is full fat and fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Appropriately planned vegan diets for infants have been shown to promote normal infant growth. As long as the proper nutritional considerations are taken into account, infants can successfully consume a plant-based diet without impediment to growth or development. Next, let’s look at toddler nutrition.
Toddlerhood is the age range from one year old to three years old. As children reach the toddler years, growth starts to slow and is not as rapid as infancy. This slower growth rate is observed through decreased appetite. However, nutritional demands increase prior to growth spurts, and therefore toddlers may have periods where they eat more than at other times in preparation for a spurt. It is around this age that children begin to have strong food preferences and food skills are developed.
Toddlers have the innate ability to control food intake based on biological energy requirements. However, toddlers have a small stomach capacity, and eating too many fiber-rich foods in a day, as can be common with vegan and vegetarian diets, has the potential to fill toddlers up quickly and limits intake of energy dense foods. Because of this, it’s important to make sure the diet of a toddler has enough energy dense foods available.
Toddlers following vegan or vegetarian diets have been shown to meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, however, toddlers may have insufficient intakes of zinc, iron, and calcium, especially vegan toddlers. As with infancy, iron deficiency and IDA are also a risk for this age group. Iron intake in children one to three years of age should be 7 mg per day. Fortified breads and cereals can help toddlers reach their daily iron requirements. Vitamin D and vitamin B12 intake should also be carefully assessed to ensure adequacy. Continuation of a fortified soy milk in toddlerhood can help toddlers meet vitamin D, vitamin B12, and calcium needs.
Eating habits observed from peers and family members during this age have the potential to shape long-term eating patterns. Food attitudes and preferences of those around toddlers greatly impacts the food attitudes and preferences of the toddler. Toddlers and children following vegan diets typically have a greater consumption of fruits and vegetables and lower intake of saturated fat than children not following a vegan diet. Therefore, it can be inferred that the natural composition of a vegetarian or vegan diet has the ability to establish positive long-term eating habits, starting in early childhood.
Vegan is for Everyone
Vegan and vegetarian diets are accessible at all stages of life, if planned correctly. We focused on infants and toddlers in this article, but as children grow up they can safely follow a vegan diet at any age. If you want to have children and want to raise your children vegan, do not be fearful they will be nutritionally lacking. With proper meal planning and specific nutrient considerations, a vegan diet will not impede normal growth and development; there is no nutritional need to sacrifice ethics or values in order to raise a healthy child. Following a vegan diet in childhood may also help lay the foundation for healthy eating choices throughout life and can be an incremental part to a healthy childhood and beyond. Feel confident in standing firm by your choice to raise the future plant eaters of the world, knowing they will grow and thrive on a well-planned vegan diet.
As always, consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if you have questions related to vegan nutrition. Visit The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to find a vegan or plant-based dietitian that can assist with meal planning for your and your family.
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Hi there! My name is Kendall Dennis and I am a graduate student in Georgia State University's Coordinated Program for Dietetics. I'm passionate about plant-based eating and the power our dietary choices have in impacting animals, the environment, and ourselves. I'm so excited to be pursuing food and nutrition as a career path. When I'm not studying, you can find me hiking, playing with my dog, baking, or binge-watching mystery shows.
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