So, you’re a vegan. You feel better than ever. You are more sharp mentally, your clothes fit better and say, when was the last time you caught a cold? It seems that a vegan diet is one of the best ways to optimize your health both short and long term. (Wonder why? That’s a topic covered in another post!)
But, you are an adult. Your goal is to prevent degenerative and serious diseases and enhance your well being. What about a child, though? Could a vegan diet provide everything a growing child needs during his or her most critical stages? Absolutely . . . if you do it the right way.
~Know Their Priorities: Healthy Growth and Development
When feeding a child any diet, their growth and development is a top priority. Children need more fat, protein, vitamins and minerals per pound than adults. Understanding how to create a nutritious plan that really works will not only nurture children when they are most vulnerable, it will set the foundation for good food and life choices later down the road.
The recipe is simple and consists of only a few elements: Breastfeeding, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, adequate calories, and nutrient dense solids when appropriate.
~Breastfeeding: The Most Important Thing You Will Ever Do For Them
There is a reason breast milk is called “liquid gold.” Breast milk is exquisitely designed to meet the needs of the human infant and nothing comes close to it. Its nutritional makeup is a unique, individualized, complex combination of fats, vitamins and minerals that provide everything a baby needs for the first 6 months of life. Its benefits don’t stop there, though. Breastfed babies will enjoy a reduced risk of allergies and childhood cancer, a decrease in the incidence of respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, higher IQ’s and incredible immune protection. The most expensive formulas on the market couldn’t hope to promise that! It is also incredibly economical and convenient. Breast milk is always at the perfect temperature, your baby never has to wait for it and its FREE! No bottles, extra bags or stoves required.
You’ll want to breastfeed for at least one year to give your wee one a good head start, but two years is really preferable. Even longer is fantastic! The longer you can bestow this kind of nourishment upon your child, the more they will continue to enjoy its advantages. And don’t forget about the bond you’ll create between you and your baby. It’s an irreplaceable connection that will have happy side effects for the rest of his/her life. (Wonder what they are? You guessed it . . . its in another post!) [Don't worry, you won't have a child attached to your breast forever! Natural weaning happens between the ages of 2-4 years of age.]
~Vitamin D: D3 Form is Best
Vitamin D is low in almost everybody nowadays. As a doctor, I’ve actually never seen a normal level in any of my patients. Pretty scary statistics since research is starting to uncover that its important for just about everything. Vitamin D is a nutrient and hormone that the body synthesizes from sunlight, mostly. Not only does it help the body absorb calcium to build strong bones and prevent rickets (our focus for the children), high levels of it are associated with a decreased incidence of cancer. Increasing both exposure to sunlight and vitamin D intake will boost levels in the blood. A pinch of common sense is needed here.
Obviously, it is not good for babies and small children to go out in the blazing sun without the proper clothing and sunscreen protection for long periods of time. 15 minutes of sunshine on the face and arms on most days should be enough for most fair skinned children. For those with darker skin, a longer amount of time would be needed, such as 20-25 minutes. But this makes some parents uncomfortable and rightly so if you live in places where the sun is scorching. If you do, there’s an easy way around this. A liquid supplement of Vitamin D3 is available from many different companies now. Its cheap, easy to administer and is becoming more and more necessary since we are spending more of our time indoors and very little foods have Vitamin D in amounts necessary to raise our levels to adequate amounts. 400 IU every day should do the trick. Double that if you live in a northern climate. (Notice that D3 was mentioned, also known as cholecalciferol. This is an animal source of Vitamin D, however, this is the form that the body actually makes and is most useful. There is a plant source of Vitamin D, Vitamin D2, which doesn’t metabolize as easily and doesn’t play the same role in the body. It is acceptable for vegans to use the D3 form of Vitamin D because of the protection that it offers, that its counterpart does not, and because its use does not constitute the bulk of one’s diet or lifestyle.)
~Make Sure They Get Enough: Kids Need More Than You Think
A lack of calories is probably the most common scenario seen in reasons why a vegan child is undernourished. These tend to make news stories and embellish how harmful such a diet can be and how its not a good idea to stray away from the mainstream way of doing things. If ANY diet is poorly planned, vegan or not, the growth and development of children will be compromised. That includes those diets where McDonald’s happy meals are a staple and eating out of packages and cans are regular occurrences. As your child begins to eat more solid foods, make sure that the foods that he/she is eating are providing the fat, nutrients and energy necessary for optimal nourishment, especially when they first start to wean as this is when they are most vulnerable, nutritionally. Remember to serve regular meals as well as snacks since infants have little stomachs.
~Vitamin B12: Don’t Forget About This One!
Vitamin B12 deficiency is something most vegans have to work to avoid because of the nature of the diet, and children are no different. It is possible to get adequate B12 from a mother’s breast milk, but supplementation must be used if the mother’s intake is not high enough to support both hers’ and the babies’ needs. A deficiency could result in nerve damage, weakness, brain damage and muscle wasting. At least 0.3 mcg per day is recommended until the age of 2. Don’t rely on food sources for B12. Levels of this vitamin present in food can vary widely depending on conditions that were present when the food was grown, harvested, etc. Supplements are reliably consistent and won’t vary as to what’s on the label. It’s best not to take chances.
~Important Firsts: Choose Nutrient Dense Solids
When to introduce solid food to a baby is such a controversy today. The general recommendation is at 6 months of age, but many parents are leaning more towards a baby-led weaning approach when it comes to food introduction. Such parents claim its easier to follow their babies’ cues about when they are ready for food since they are the ones who know themselves best. They also report that meal time doesn’t turn into some kind of power struggle or hated chore. How are you to know if your little one is ready? Signs like interest in what is on your plate and ability to swallow without choking or spitting food all out are good starters. Typically, they start to show an interest around 9 months, but when you choose to introduce food to your little one is up to you.
As far as what to introduce, there are really no strict rules as to what to introduce first. Pureed veggies and fruits are nutritious firsts. Picking good food sources of iron is a good idea since iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in infants. (Iron supplement can be used if commercial iron fortified cereal is not desired: 1 mg/kg [2.2 lbs] body weight per day to a max of 10 mg/day until 1 year old.) Remember to have fun with food! After all, this will be the only time they get to wear it all over themselves and actually look cute doing it!
~Other Thoughts: Essential Extras
A common mistake in a toddler vegan diet is too much bulk and not enough fat. Some high fat foods include avocado, tofu, nut butters, soymilk or other nut milks.
Also keep in mind that zinc absorption is lower from plant sources and that its deficiency can result in growth failure. The best way to avoid this is to keep breastfeeding (breast milk is high in zinc!). Legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and butters are also excellent sources of zinc when baby is ready for them.
Ensure that protein is abundant in the diet: 1.1-1.6 g/kg body weight is the recommended amount for children, a little higher than the usual recommendation because it takes into account the reduced digestibility of plant protein.
Last, but not least, don’t forget about omega 3 fatty acids. These are generally scarce in the vegan diet and are extremely beneficial, especially to babies. They are important for brain health and development and cognitive development. At least 1.1-2 grams/day is recommended. This can be accomplished in 1 tsp flaxseed oil or 3 Tbsp walnuts.
~What’s The Point Anyway?
Ultimately, we want our children to reach their fullest potential in all aspects of their lives: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A well planned diet that allows children to develop and grow will not only make this possible, it will shape their views on how to appreciate food and its powerful impact on their lives. This can and will affect choices they make later on in other areas of their lives for the better! It is our duty to ensure they get a good start so that their life compass will point in a healthy direction.