One of the biggest dilemmas for vegan parents is whether they should feed their children an exclusively plant-based diet and whether doing so will provide all the nutrients required by growing children.
According to Emer Delaney, a BBC dietician, the answer to both questions is “yes, with the right planning and knowledge, a child can get everything they need following a vegan diet.”
The primary nutrients parents of vegan children need to focus on are vitamin D, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12. But before we look at what a vegan diet lacks, let us examine the benefits of a plant-based diet for children.
Colourful plates full of fibre
I have yet to meet a parent who believes their child eats enough vegetables. Food neophobia (avoiding foods that are new and/or unfamiliar) kicks in between the ages of two and three and by four is in full swing. It is generally accepted that this is a hangover from our hunter-gatherer days – toddlers were extremely vulnerable to eating toxic plants; therefore, humans have evolved to be cautious of greens during early childhood.
There is no evidence to show that vegan-raised children will skip the food neophobia stage which drives parents to distraction. Given that this self-preservation method is bedded deeply in our genes, vegan and non-vegan families will be hiding vegetables in pasta sauce for many generations to come. But, on a vegan diet, children are exposed to a wider variety of fruits and vegetables from an early age. Furthermore, their fibre intake will dramatically increase (a ten-year-old should be getting 15-20 grams of fibre per day).
Getting adequate protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and B12
Fortunately, there are plenty of protein-rich foods available on a vegan diet. Quinoa, legumes, and nut butters can be added daily to meet the required daily amounts. Plant-based milks and cereals are often fortified with B12, iron, and calcium.
Regarding vitamin D, the Department of Health recommends that all children between six months and five years take a vitamin D supplement. The dose will depend on the child’s age. Remember to check the label as not all supplements are vegan.
One of the main challenges of bringing up children on a vegan diet is ensuring they are receiving adequate calories. Because plant-based food is often less calorie-dense than meat and dairy, it is essential to add in oils, ground nuts (children under five years should never be given whole nuts), avocado, rice, pasta, and wholegrain bread. These foods are high in energy and will help ensure your child is getting enough calories to support their learning and play.
Despite the negative press, vegan children sometimes receive, well-informed parents who are committed to providing a well-balanced diet to their children can safely ditch meat and dairy. The health benefits of doing so are likely to benefit long into adulthood.
Please note that this article does not constitute medical advice. Before making any significant changes to you or your children’s diet, you should talk to a healthcare professional.