Plant-based and vegan diets are undoubtedly on the rise and, as men and women shift towards adopting this plant-filled diet and lifestyle pattern, this can become the choice made by parents for their children too.
With the environment and health concerns being two of the most common reasons why people are turning to this diet, it’s important to be in the know when it comes to your child’s nutrition should you choose to follow this dietary pattern. It can be done in a healthy and safe way with careful planning and open discussion with your health care providers.
Please note this advice is relevant for toddlers and children (not infants under the age of 1 year), and does not replace medical or individual dietetic advice for your child administered by an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
8 essential nutrients to watch for in a child following a vegan diet
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods like meat, fish, chicken, dairy and eggs, which are all excluded on a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is needed for brain and nervous system function, as well as cell health and energy production – pretty important, if you ask me!
Incorporating vitamin B12-fortified (meaning B12 is added) foods by checking the labels of soy milk and other vegan-friendly products like fortified nutritional yeast, as well as an appropriate B12 supplement is a good idea to help ensure you get enough of this essential nutrient.
P.S. Vegan mothers-to-be, you should make sure you are getting enough of this nutrient too!
2. Vitamin D
The best source of this fat-soluble nutrient is sunshine of course! Getting your kiddo out into the sunshine playing and exposing their skin to some sunshine is really important for their immune system, hormone function and also helps with calcium absorption for bone health too.
Vitamin D needs enough fats from the diet for absorption, so ensuring your child is getting enough healthy fats from avocado, nuts and seeds, nut butters and extra virgin olive oil is key to keeping their vitamin D levels up.
From around 6 months of age and beyond your child’s iron needs steadily increase and continue to do so as they grow. Iron is found in every single red blood cell in our bodies and is responsible for oxygen transport around the body, important for energy levels and brain function too. Iron deficiency is very common among children, common symptoms include fatigue, poor energy levels, poor concentration at school, dizziness and pale appearance to name a few.
Whilst the most easily absorbed forms of iron are found in red meat and animal foods, there are plenty of plant-based alternatives that can help your child get what they need. Iron-fortified tofu, legumes and beans, dried apricots, iron-fortified grain and cereal products like breads and breakfast cereals, oats, wholegrain pasta and nuts and seeds as well as green leafy veggies can help. Be sure to combine these foods with a source of vitamin C like a serving of fruit, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, capsicum, spinach or broccoli to help enhance the absorption of plant-based iron. And avoid calcium-rich foods like a fortified milk alternatives (e.g. soy or almond milk) as this can block iron absorption from plant-based sources.
If you think your child may be iron deficient, visit your GP and ask for a blood test to check and then speak to a paediatric Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Zinc is an essential nutrient for immune health, growth and development as well as helping heal all those scraped knees that kids seem to collect! Zinc is found in many protein foods including plant-based proteins such as legumes and beans, nuts and seeds such as hemp seeds, chia seeds, cashews, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, you can also find some zinc in quinoa and fortified cereal and grain products.
Calcium is a key mineral needed to help build healthy bones of your growing child, but it is also involved in muscle and nerve function too. Calcium is largely found in dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese. Some dairy alternatives add extra calcium to make it a suitable swap, check for at least 120 mg of calcium per 100 mL of milk alternative on the label to ensure it is an appropriate replacement. Most non-dairy yoghurts and cheeses on the market are currently not fortified, so you will need to add in some other non-dairy sources such as tahini, almonds, leafy greens and chia seeds to help meet your child’s needs.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know if your child is getting enough calcium from a blood test, so speaking to an Accredited Practising Dietitian to assess your child’s calcium intake from their diet may be a good idea to ensure they are getting what they need and to prevent bone concerns.
Iodine is really important for everybody’s thyroid hormones. A key source of dietary iodine in an omnivorous diet is seafood, not to worry, there are plenty of vegan options available including using iodised salt in your cooking, purchasing bread that is made with iodised salt and also seaweed – a perfect school lunchbox snack!
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are most concentrated in marine sources like oily fish, important for brain and eye development and some studies showing better memory outcomes too. There are some key plant-based sources to include in your kids’ day including chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and soy beans.
If these foods don’t tend to be well-accepted by your child, speak to your GP and dietitian about an algae-based omega-3 supplement for your kids.
While there are plenty of sources of plant protein that are on offer in a vegan diet, it is important to include these daily and in sufficient amounts to help your child get what they need for growth and development. The best vegan sources of protein are legumes and beans – think baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans as well as tofu, tempeh, edamame beans and nuts and seeds to a lesser extent. Children need about 1/3 of their plate to be protein foods like these, 1/3 of their plate to be wholegrain carbohydrate for energy and fibre and about 1/3 of their plate to be veggies to help them grow and get the variety of nutrients they need to get up and go!
It is definitely possible to raise a healthy and happy family following a vegan diet, some meal planning and careful consideration to these key nutrients should be given in consultation with a health care professional who is tracking your child’s growth and development, as well as flagging any nutritional concerns about deficiencies early and seeking out appropriate testing.
Consider involving an Accredited Practising Dietitian, a university-qualified nutrition expert to assist with your meal-planning needs as a vegan family.