We all want the best for our children and it is only natural to wonder if raising a vegan child is ‘the healthiest’ for their little growing bodies. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an appropriately planned vegetarian diet (including a vegan diet) can be nutritionally adequate, may provide health benefits and can aid in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. It is deemed appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, and infancy and well as all through childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.
The key to following any specific diet is to become familiar with the nutrients that are vital to the health of your growing child. You may already be a pro with your own vegan diet but remember that kiddos have different nutrient needs than adults and these needs change throughout their growing years.
What does a well-planned vegan diet look like?
A healthy, well-balanced vegan diet is one that includes a wide variety of foods including whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D often come up as nutrients that may be lacking in a vegan diet. These nutrients are abundantly available in animal sources but with a little planning, can be easily incorporated into your plant-based lifestyle.
Obtaining these nutrients from plants instead of animal sources will allow you to get increased nutrient benefits such as fiber while avoiding the often high fat and cholesterol content found in animal sources.
Understanding these key nutrients will help you to achieve a healthful vegan diet and ensure you and your family are getting the nutrients needed for growth.
When you first become a vegan, well-meaning loved ones may question your ability to get enough protein. At this point, the “…but are you getting protein?” question is a played-out troupe when we know that it is possible to meet protein needs while following a plant-based diet. Vegans get protein from a variety of sources including soy, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, and many grains. A well-planned vegan diet should include a plant-based protein source at every meal and snack.
Although a vegan may have a lower protein intake than a non-vegan, following a vegan diet has not been associated with protein deficiency. Vegans typically consume more than enough protein and meet or exceed the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) if they consume a varied diet with an adequate intake of calories. This means that if your child is eating enough calories and you are sure to include a protein source with meals, it is likely that they are reaching their desired daily intake of protein as outlined below.
Adequate Intake (AI) of protein for children per day
|Age||Assigned Female at birth||Assigned Male at birth|
Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein for children per day
|Age||Assigned Female at birth||Assigned Male at birth|
For example, note that the RDA for children ages 4-8 years is 19 grams of protein each day. An average serving of soy milk contains 7-8 grams of protein meaning your child could meet their daily protein needs just by consuming 2 and a half servings of soy milk.
Iron is a nutrient found in trace amounts in every cell in the body. It forms part of your red blood cells (as haemoglobin) as well as your muscle cells (myoglobin). The primary function of these molecules is to carry oxygen. Iron deficiency is common in children and can affect their development. Children between the ages of 1-3 are at the highest risk for iron deficiency anemia due to their rapid growth. Iron deficiency inhibits the amount of oxygen each cell receives, including that of the brain thus irreversibly negatively influencing brain development. Toddlers need approximately 7mg iron per day and children need 8-15mg/ day depending on their age.
Iron deficiency anemia can be corrected through diet and supplementation. Both heme (usually animal) and non-heme (usually plant) iron can be absorbed. Good iron sources include: Iron-fortified breads and breakfast cereals, legumes (e.g. kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas), green leafy vegetables, nuts/nut pastes and dried fruit.
Absorption of non-heme or plant sources of iron can be enhanced by pairing it with vitamin C. Oxalic acid (spinach and chocolate), phytic acid (wheat bran and legumes) and calcium carbonate supplements can all decrease iron absorption. It does not mean that you should avoid these foods, just be mindful to consume iron rich foods apart from these absorption blockers or add a vitamin C source to boost absorption.
It is unlikely that a person will take in too much iron through food, but children may develop iron toxicity by accidentally eating iron supplements in excess. Symptoms of an overdose include fatigue, anorexia (loss of appetite), dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, weight loss, shortness of breath and grey colored skin.
Calcium deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies seen in young children. This together with iron, potassium, and fiber. Calcium is needed for bone mineralisation and for the maintenance of your child’s growing bones. Toddlers need 700mg/ day and older children need 1000 – 1300mg/ day depending on their age.
Each person absorbs calcium at different rates and dietary factors such as protein and phosphorus intake or vitamin D status can also affect calcium absorption. The rise in the risk of calcium deficiencies may be due to the introduction of unfortified non-dairy milks (like oat, rice, or coconut milks). So, it is imperative that when you choose a milk-alternative that you choose one that is calcium fortified.
However, calcium is not only found in dairy foods, it is also found in abundance in certain plant-based foods. The bioavailability (or the amount the body can absorb and utilize) is lower in certain plant foods (most likely due to the presence of anti-nutrients like oxalates). Choosing low oxalate greens like bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale are not only good sources of calcium, but their calcium is also highly bioavailable. Other good sources of bioavailable calcium include calcium set tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, and dried beans.
B-vitamins function as enzymes and are involved in the production of many new cells (including nerve cells and immune system cells). They are involved in the production of DNA and also in energy metabolism.
Vegans are particularly at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency as it is found mainly in animal food products. Certain foods like unfortified nutritional yeast, while they are a source of B12, are not a reliable source and vegans are encouraged to consume B12 supplements or fortified foods regularly to prevent a deficiency to prevent long term complications and deficiency diseases.
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. Thus, can have an effect on bone mineralisation, tooth health and even muscle contraction and joint health.
Vitamin D is formed when you expose your skin to sunlight. The amount you need from food or supplements depends on your geographical location, skin tone and time spent outside. Those with darker skin may not be getting as much vitamin D from sunlight as their melanin (the dark pigmentation) absorbs the sunlight instead of converting it to vitamin D.
The daily reference intake (DRI) for infants is 400 IU/ day and is 600IU/ day for children with higher values for the ‘at risk’ population (i.e. dark skin or those who are covered up for religious reasons). The main risk of a vitamin D deficiency is hypocalcaemia rickets (or rickets due to low calcium levels). Rickets is when a child’s bones are weak or soft, usually due to poor bone mineralisation (due to poor calcium absorption).
From a supplement point of view, it’s important to note that cholecalciferol (or vitamin D3) is sourced from fish or sheep’s wool (lanolin) and so is not be suitable for vegans but ergocalciferol or vitamin D2, is derived from yeast as is thus aligns with a vegan lifestyle.
Excessive intake of vitamin D may cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, muscle and joint aches, confusion, fatigue or damage to the kidneys and so supplementation should always be discussed with your healthcare professional and remember, more is not always better!
Through highlighting these important nutrients as well as placing focus on understanding why certain nutrients are vital in a child’s diet, we hope that this article has empowered you to make the informed decisions for your own health as well as the health of your family. A well-planned vegan diet with mindful considerations for these key nutrients can help you reach your health goals and support the healthy growth of your children.
Mahan KL, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy. 14th edition. Philadelphia: Elsevier/Saunders Publishing
Melina, V., Craig, W. and Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), pp.1970-1980.