About 5 percent of Americans, both children and adults, follow a vegan diet, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. By definition, vegans eat no flesh foods or products derived from animals. This includes dairy and animal products, such as honey and certain preservatives and additives that come from animal sources.
While any child can be raised vegan in a healthful way, it takes time and thoughtful planning. During infancy, the brain is developing, and adequate nutrients are of critical importance, especially protein, iron, zinc, and the fatty acid DHA. Once your baby starts eating solid food, careful planning to match these nutrient needs from the diet is needed.
If you are considering raising your baby a vegan, here are the nutrients you’ll want to watch:
- Protein: As a vegan, animal sources of protein are out, and plant-based sources are in. Plant-based protein sources should be included at every meal and most snacks. Good options include beans and bean products like hummus; nuts and nut butters; seeds and seed butters; high protein grains such as quinoa, amaranth, oats, and bulgur; soy milk; tofu; and soy-based yogurt. Make sure you keep food textures age-appropriate to avoid incidents of choking.
- Iron: You can find iron in beans, grains, and green leafy vegetables. Because plant sources of iron are harder for the body to absorb and utilize, pair vitamin C sources such as citrus fruit with iron sources to make absorption more efficient.
- Zinc: Beans, grains, and nuts will be your top plant sources of zinc. These foods are full of fiber and may fill your little one up, so be careful about giving too much fiber.
- Calcium: An important nutrient for bone development, calcium can be found in fortified soy-based products such as soy milk, fortified cereals, certain vegetables, and sesame seeds.
- Vitamin D: Look for fortified foods with calcium and vitamin D, such as orange juice, cereals, and alternative milks. All children are in peak bone-building mode, and these two nutrients are essential to the process.
- Vitamin B-12: If following a strict vegan diet, you will need to find a good vitamin B-12 food source like fortified soy milk, or give your little one a vitamin B-12 supplement such as nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 requirements are low but essential, so be sure your child eats some every day.
- DHA: This fatty acid provides structure to the brain and retina. Babies need DHA, especially during high-growth phases, such as in the first 24 months of life. Breast milk, fortified infant formula, fish, fortified eggs, milk, and orange juice are all good sources of DHA. Consider a DHA supplement if eggs, fish, and milk are not part of your baby’s diet.
- Calories: Meeting calorie needs can be a challenge because plant-based foods tend to be high in fiber, taking up some serious real estate in the tummies of little ones. This filling factor can interfere with your baby getting enough calories for normal growth. Make sure to offer small, frequent meals, include a good fat source at meals and snacks, and keep track of weight gain and growth with your pediatrician.
- A vegan diet can be a healthy diet for your young child, provided you plan food to meet all nutritional requirements.
- Too much fiber can fill up your young child and interfere with adequate eating.
- Track your child’s growth, and seek input from a nutrition professional or your pediatrician if concerned about his diet.