Is a Vegan Plant-Based Diet Healthy for Children?

toddlers eating fruit

Hi Mama!   Would you like to know how to feed your child a healthy, plant-based diet without needing to get a degree in nutrition?

Have you worried your little one might be deficient in essential nutrients if she eats a plant-based vegan diet?

I’m going to tell you How and Why your child will THRIVE on a plant-based diet.

  • Are you interested in the plant-based diet but wondering if it's safe for your little ones?

  • Do you wonder if plant protein will be adequate for optimal growth and development?

  • Do you have well-meaning friends and family telling you that your child can’t thrive on a plant-based vegan diet and that you might even be causing them harm?

I’m Heidi, a plant-based mama and a primary care pediatric nurse, and I’m going to put your mind at ease about these questions.

First, let me assure you that a plant-based diet can be safe and nutritious for a growing baby, toddler and child. I’ll be discussing the nutrients moms like you worry about most.

Be confident you're providing the best nutrition for your little one!

Grab your free pdfNutrition & Supplement Checklist for the Plant-Based Child and post in on your fridge, use it to plan meals and take it shopping.

I'm so convinced the plant-based lifestyle is the best diet for babies and children that I want to do everything I can to make it easy for you to be a plant-based mama.

Join our Facebook Group of Passionate Plant-Based Mamas and connect with other like-minded mamas.

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Oh, and just so you know, when I talk about a plant-based or vegan diet, I am referring to a whole food plant-based diet. But I’m just going to say plant-based.

"A well-planned plant-based diet is not only safe for children, but it can help prevent many of the most common chronic diseases that we face in the United States. Prevention starts during pregnancy and can be continued throughout childhood."

Dr Yami, Plant-Based pediatrician of VeggieFitKids.com


Most of the nutrients your child needs for proper growth and development should be obtained through the food she eats, not supplements.  

However, there are a few nutrients that can be a little more difficult to get, especially if your child is pickyLet’s break it down.

Plant Protein for Your Child

Protein is a macronutrient that builds and maintains muscle and body tissue.

 
Plant Protein

Plant Protein

 

Protein is made of amino acids.

Is plant protein as good as animal protein from meat, dairy and eggs?

Yes!  In fact, it’s better.

There’s a myth out there that we to eat need meat to get high quality protein.  Myth!

What most people don’t know is plants have more than enough protein--for growing babies, children, even elite athletes… everyone!

Many of the biggest animals get all their protein from plants. Gorillas, elephants and hippos all grew their huge muscles and bones with only plant protein!

And humans can grow big, strong muscles from plant protein too. 

Animal protein  (from meat, dairy and eggs) has risks that come with it that plant-protein doesn’t have.

Did you know animal protein increases inflammation in the body, is hard on kidneys, and comes in a package that’s high in saturated fat? It also increases risk for colorectal cancer-an unpleasant and common disease of Americans.

Unlike animal protein, PLANT PROTEIN IS CLEAN PROTEIN and comes without any bad company hanging around.

Although protein is an essential macronutrient, we’ve been led (incorrectly) into thinking more is better.  Because of this myth, Americans, including children, tend eat an excessive amount of animal protein and their health is suffering.

You might be surprised to know protein is in nearly everything you eat!

Guess what? Per 100 calories, broccoli has more protein than beef.  Unless one is severely calorie deficient it’s impossible to be deficient in protein.

The meat, dairy, and egg industries have worked very hard and spent a fortune to make you believe you need meat, dairy and eggs to get “high quality” protein. It’s just not true.

How do you know if your child is getting enough plant protein for optimal growth and health?

Per the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine,  “To consume a diet that contains enough, but not too much, protein, simply replace animal products with grains, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), and fruits. As long as one is eating a variety of plant foods in sufficient quantity to maintain one’s weight, the body gets plenty of protein “

In other words, if your child is eating enough calories from mostly whole plant foods, she is getting more than enough protein.

Do you need to combine different foods to make complete proteins every day? 

Nope. That’s old school and has been disproven.

The human body is smart, and it stores amino-acids (building blocks of protein) and  mixes and matches the amino acids to form the complete proteins it needs when it needs it.

Good sources of plant-based protein:

Quinoa

Tofu

Beans

Peas

Lentils

Barley

Brown Rice

Hemp

Nuts

Seeds

Hummus

Nut

Butters

Spinach

Broccoli

Iron for Your Child

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Iron carries oxygen in our blood to all the cells of the body.

A deficiency in iron is called anemia.Your pediatrician will check your child's iron level at 12 months and not again unless there is a concern for anemia.

Most of the time your child will get all the iron she needs from food.  

Breast milk contains little iron.  So if your baby gets more than half of her feedings from breast milk, she should take an iron supplement until she starts eating iron-rich foods are at about six months.

If your baby gets more than half of her feedings from formula, no need to supplement with iron since formula is fortified with iron.

Plant-based children are not at higher risk than meat-eating children for iron deficiency anemia.

In fact toddlers who drink large quantities of cow’s milk are at higher risk for iron deficiency anemia.

Plant Based Diet Nutrition Iron Rich Foods

Plant Based Diet Nutrition Iron Rich Foods

Iron-rich plant-foods

Iron fortified infant cereals

Iron fortified dry cereals

Lentils

Beans

Peas

Leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach Swiss chard, collard greens

Pumpkin

Tofu

Tempeh

Enriched pasta

Raisins

Prunes

Dried apricots

Soy milk

Blackstrap molasses

Dark chocolate

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Vitamin D for Your Child 

The body makes Vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight.

Most Americans don’t get enough sunlight to make adequate vitamin D.

Sunlight and supplements are the best ways to give your child vitamin D.

So most babies, toddlers, and children (plant eaters and meat-eaters) need a vitamin D supplement (most adults too).

If you’re exclusively breastfeeding your baby, your pediatrician will start your newborn on a vitamin D supplement.

Breast-fed babies from birth to one year need 400 IU per day

No vitamin D supplement is needed for formula fed babies.

Everyone else from age one to age 70 needs 600 IU per day.

To get vitamin D naturally, your child should play in the sunshine 10-15 min a day if light-skinned  and 20 min a day if darker skinned. In rainy Portland, where I live, everyone needs to take a vitamin D supplement for at least nine months of the year!

Choose plant milks that are fortified with vitamin D

Calcium for Your Child

Your child needs calcium for bone, muscle and heart health.

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Your baby and child do not need dairy to get their calcium.  

Calcium is plentiful in plants!

Remember, strong bones come not only from calcium but also from being active...running, playing, lifting, jumping.

Fun Fact Have you ever seen a moose’s antlers? They can span 6 feet across and weigh up to 70 lbs.  A moose’s antlers are made of bone composed mainly of calcium. A moose builds his antlers and his 1800 pound body entirely with plants!  

Good sources of calcium

Fortified plant-milks like soy, almond, cashew, hemp, oat and rice 

Collard Greens

Spinach

Kale Bok choy

Broccoli

Napa cabbage

Tofu

Lentils

Beans

Sweet potatoes

Blackstrap molasses

Figs

Corn tortillas

Vitamin B12  for Your Child

Vitamin B12 help keeps the nerve and blood cells healthy.

All plant-eaters need to supplement with vitamin with B12.  

Vitamin B12 comes from micro-organisms found mostly in dirt.

Meat has B12 because animals eat dirty food and store the B12 in their muscles (meat).

Vegan and plant-based babies 6-12 months should have a supplement of 0.5 mcg each day.

Vegan and plant-based children from 1-3 years should have 0.9 mcg each day.

Vegan and plant-based children from 4-8 years should have 1.2 mcg each day.

Vegan and plant-based children from 9-13 years should have 1.8 mcg each day.

Vegan and plant-based children from 14 years through adulthood should have 2.4 mcg each day.

(Vitamin B12 recommendations from nih.gov)

Food sources of Vitamin B12

Nutritional Yeast

Fortified plant milks

Fortified soy products

Fortified breakfast cereals

Fortified breads

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA, ALA) for Your Child

Necessary for heart health, brain health, skin and eye health.

No need for supplements.  Just sprinkle a teaspoonful of ground flaxseed , chia or hemp seed on your kiddos meal once a day or blend it up with a smoothie (below).

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Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids

FlaxseedsChia seedsHemp seedsWalnutsWheat germLeafy greens

Calories and Fat for Your Child

Babies and young children grow quickly and need a lot of calories.

But they have little tummies and can’t eat large quantities of food at one time.

That’s why it's best to give your little one foods that pack a lot of calories and nutrients into a small package.

Calorie and Nutrient Dense Plant Foods

Avocados

Nut butters

Hummus

Full fat plant milks and plant yogurts

Tofu

Whole grain breads, cereals and baked goods

Enriched pasta

Smoothies and smoothie bowls

Energy bites and bars

Puddings

Dried fruits

Plant based frozen desserts like coconut ice cream and nice cream

Soy for Your Child

Please don’t be afraid of soy.  

When eaten as tofu, tempeh,  soy milk, miso, or edamame (soybeans) soy is not only safe, but it has been proven to reduce risk of prostate and breast cancers. 

Avoid highly processed soy isolate products (and all highly processed foods).

There’s a lot of fear about soy.

"The media have propagated concerns about soy's effect on hormones. You may have heard how soy consumption decreases fertility or gives a male 'man-boobs'.  But no solid evidence supports these assertions."Similarly, fears circulated that soy-based infant formulas led to problems with sexual development, brain function, immunity and future reproduction. No conclusive evidence supports these claims, either." 

Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT and Raymond Cronise, from Plant-Based Nutrition, second edition 2018.

Men in Asia have eaten soy for two-thousand years,  yet they don’t have man boobs or higher rates of infertility.  If you're really worried about these things you should stop giving your child dairy.If you're still worried about soy you can find more information here,  here , here and here .

“Consuming soy foods during childhood and or the teen years may reduce cancer risk in later life by as much as 60 percent

Davis, RD and Melina, MS, RD from Becoming Vegan, Comprehensive Edition, The Complete Reference to Plant-Based Nutrition

Plant Based Diet For Kids and Families

Plant Based Diet For Kids and Families

“Soy  products  have no adverse  effects on men and may help prevent cancer in men

An analysis of 14 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that increased intake of soy resulted in a 26 percent reduction in prostate cancer risk.” 

What wouldn't you do to help prevent your little ones from ever getting cancer?

Finally...

I hope by now you are feeling empowered with knowledge to take on the plant-based lifestyle with your family. 

All the nutrition information I've presented to you is from evidence-based scientific research so you don't have to worry.

Grab your FREE NUTRITION & SUPPLEMENT CHECKLIST.

Post it on your fridge

Use it for meal planning

Take it shopping

You'll want refer to it often when first starting your child on her plant-based journey.

Also, if you found this article helpful, please share and spread the word.

Be well!

Heidi

Resources

Davis, B., & Melina, V. (2014). Becoming vegan: The complete reference to plant-based nutrition. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing.Fuhrman, J. (2006). Disease-proof your child: Feeding kids right. New York: St. Martins Griffin.Hever, J., Jillette, P., & Cronise, R. J. (2018). Plant-based nutrition(2nd ed.). New York: Alpha, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.Iron-Deficiency Anemia: The Problem of Pale, Chubby, Milk-Guzzling Toddlers. (2013, February 07). Retrieved June 2, 2018, from https://kindercarepediatrics.ca/general-advice/anemia-the-problem-of-pale-chubby-milk-guzzling-toddlers/Vitamin D & Iron Supplements for Babies: AAP Recommendations. (2016, May 27). Retrieved May 26, 2016, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Vitamin-Iron-Supplements.aspx Messina, Mark, and Leena Hilakivi-Clarke. “Early Intake Appears to Be the Key to the Proposed Protective Effects of Soy Intake Against Breast Cancer.” Nutrition and Cancer, vol. 61, no. 6, Oct. 2009, pp. 792–798.,doi:10.1080/01635580903285015.PCRM resource Booklet  for feeding kids plant based https://pcrm.widencollective.com/portals/gr0kpkol/factsheets