This topic polarises the experts and parents alike! Some people say it can be the healthiest way of eating out there – and others say it is ‘downright dangerous’. But the debate gets heated when it comes to children – with some people suggesting parents are irresponsibly gambling with their family’s health.
However, veganism is on the rise. The number of vegans in the UK has risen by more than 360 per cent in the last 10 years, a 2016 study revealed.
Firstly, what really is veganism?
Veganism is a relatively new way of living and was only defined as late as 1949. Here is the current definition by The Vegan Society UK.
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
So, what do vegans eat?
Going vegan means that you live on a plant-based diet. You don’t eat or drink anything made from animals, i.e. meat (includes poultry & game), fish & shellfish, dairy products (cheese & milk), eggs, animal by-products (such as gelatine) and even honey; as it is believed that all these foods and drinks hurt animals. Vegans obtain protein from beans, legumes, pulses, nuts and soy products like tofu.
Thankfully now, there are meat and dairy-free versions of many foods that you can eat as an alternative!
But, is this animal free, plant-based diet safe for kids?
Like most things in life, there are benefits and risks to raising a vegan child. In brief, the risks of raising a vegan child can lead to nutrient deficiencies (particularly calcium, iron, B12, iodine), inadequate energy intake, faltering growth and it can also slow down an affect their intellectual development. Growth restriction may also occur if the diet is not optimally providing fats, protein and total energy.
It is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants, and parents should understand the serious consequences of failing to follow advice regarding supplementation of the diet. Dr. Mary Fewtrell, chair of European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), said in a press statement. “The risks of getting it wrong can include irreversible cognitive damage and, in the extreme, death.”
Startling I know, however on the pro side a well-planned plant-based vegan diet can provide everything a child needs. So yes, it can be done — but only with careful monitoring
Dr. Sheela Magge, an endocrinologist at Children’s National Health System, stated ‘’a child can be on a vegan diet safely, but it should be done in consultation with the child’s paediatrician or primary caregiver. A nutritionist may also be involved. Childhood is a critical time for growth and development, and it is very important that adequate amounts of critical vitamins and minerals are taken in the child’s diet at specific times in development.”
You need to make sure your children are getting all the vitamins and nutrients their growing bodies require.
You’ll need to research and have lists of vegan sources of calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids as these are essential in the diet and must be included to ensure your child is getting enough nutrients.
Eating fortified foods, especially grains, can help avoid these deficiencies, as can vitamin supplements. The child would will need to supplement nutrients and your paediatrician, GP or a nutrition expert can advise you about diet, vitamins and supplements.
The general belief however is that it is possible to raise children on a balanced vegetarian diet however vegan diets are often too restrictive, and the risk of nutritional compromise outweighs any potential benefit. Children’s growing bodies also need plenty of protein, so you’ll want to make sure your child is getting enough. Vegan diets are also naturally low saturated fat, so be aware that the diet needs to hit daily calorie targets.
Children need good nutrition
To make sure your child gets enough of all the nutrients needed for a growing child, their vegan diet must include:
- Protein alternatives such as nuts, legumes and tofu
- Energy foods for growth and development
- Iron to prevent anaemia
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D and calcium to prevent bone disease
- Suitable fats from non-meat sources
- Food in the correct form and combination to make sure nutrients can be digested and absorbed
Breast milk or formula will remain an important food for babies up until 12 months.
Beans and legumes
Small serves of protein should be included at each main meal. Suggestions for beans and legumes include:
- Baked beans
- Chickpeas and hummus
- Red kidney beans
- Butter beans
- Cannellini beans
- Borlotti beans
- Three bean mix
- Haricot beans
- Smooth nut butters
Pulses should be thoroughly cooked to destroy toxins and to help digestion. Undercooked pulses can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
Children’s high-energy needs
Young children have high-energy needs and a small stomach. You should include a mixture of refined and unrefined (wholegrain) cereals and a variety of energy-giving foods in your child’s diet. These can be found in the following foods:
Cereals – most types of cereal are suitable for vegan diets. Just no dairy, eggs or honey.
Dairy products –A vegan alternative is soy milk with added calcium. Some soy milks also have added vitamin B12.
Fruit and vegetables – include a wide variety of fruit and vegetables every day. As a guide, aim for two small serves of fruit and three small serves of vegetables.
Oils – include soy and canola oils because they contain linolenic acid, which is important for brain and nervous tissue function. Oils also provide energy.
Be careful with fibre
Watch the amount of fibre in your child’s diet. Too much fibre can lead to poor absorption of important nutrients including:
Too much fibre can also be extremely filling, which may prevent a child from eating enough food for their energy needs. Try to introduce a variety of high-energy foods, such as avocados and vegetable oils, to meet your child’s energy needs.
Tips for your child’s vegan diet
Vegan diets are prone to vitamin and protein deficiencies, so care must be taken that nutritional needs are met. Please keep in mind that very young children and babies should only eat a strict vegan diet under the guidance of a health professional.
For a family or child is considering a change to a vegan diet, it is important to:
- understand what foods need to be substituted in the diet as energy, protein and vitamin sources may need to be ‘topped up’
- eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- increase the energy value of food using nut butters, avocado, full fat dairy products, fat spreads and oils
- give your child regular meals and snacks
- base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible), quinoa contains more protein than rice, pasta or potato
- have some dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower sugar options)
- eat some beans, pulses and other proteins
- choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts
- drink plenty of fluids (the government recommends 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day)
- if you choose to include foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, have them less often and in small amounts.
- encourage your child to eat a wide variety of foods.
- alternate wholegrain and refined cereal products
- combine lower energy vegetarian foods, such as vegetables, with higher fat foods: for example, vegetable fritters
- combine foods containing vitamin C with foods that are high in iron. For example, offer an orange with baked beans on toast. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron.
Eating and following an appropriately planned vegan diet has become slightly easier since most vegan and vegetarian products, such as soymilk and fake meats, are now fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Even so, I generally think a vegetarian diet that includes dairy or even fish is better for a growing child than strict veganism.
Don’t assume that a vegan diet is automatically a healthy one, even if you ensure that your child is getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals. If you are going to place your child on a vegan diet, I would recommend you see a health professional (GP and a nutritionist or dietitian) for advice about a balanced diet and supplements.
At Children Love Health we have many animal free, affordable, vegan products you can choose from. The ingredients are safe for you and your family and include vitamins A, C and E, natural oils, such as coconut, argan and rosehip, algae, soybean extracts, hemp seed extracts, berry and so on. These ingredients are closer to their natural state and therefore seen to be more effective than their synthetic counterparts.
Even if the vegan diet is not for you, knowing that you are using vegan products that are toxin-free, and free of preservatives, chemicals and synthetic hormone disruptors, will always benefit your health.