An overview of the risks and benefits of a vegan diet in children, and what parents can do to raise a healthy generation of plant-based eaters
By Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani
The vegan population in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, and The Vegan Society estimates 1% of Britain’s population of 67 million consider themselves to be vegan. For many people, adopting an animal-free diet is a response to concerns about the environmental impacts of the meat industry as it is understood that animal farming and meat production contribute about 18% to worldwide carbon emissions. But there’s another reason behind people turning vegan – parents are increasingly worried about the quality of meat in toddler and baby products.
The 2020 Mintel Report on baby food and drink revealed that 71% of parents of 0-4-year-old children were concerned about the quality of meat in their children’s food.
Lifestyle, environmental and health concerns, therefore, are enough reason for parents to increasingly turn to a plant-based diet for their family. At first glance, this seems unreasonable, given that children were raised drinking milk and eating meat for the past centuries. Indeed, Belgium’s Royal Academy of Medicine recommends children do not follow a vegan diet, as the eating plan is ‘restrictive’, creates ‘unavoidable’ nutritional shortcomings and, if not properly monitored, could lead to deficiencies and stunted development.
Other official recommendations take a different stance. The NHS suggests that children on a plant-based diet should eat a wide variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth. The German Society for Nutrition and the American Academy of Pediatrics state that a well-planned vegan diet is possible but vitamin supplementation has to be considered.
What is the background for these diverging and unclear recommendations? Vitamins and micronutrients from animal sources are usually more easily absorbed, and the protein composition of meat is more favourable for us than of plants. Some micronutrients, such as Vitamin B12, are only found in animal-derived sources.
The main concern about plant-based diets is the risk of vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies. Especially for a child, these can have detrimental effects on development and growth. Vitamin B12 deficiency in babies can, for example, lead to anaemia, muscle weakness and ultimately severe developmental delays.
A special challenge for new parents on a plant-based diet is the lack of an infant formula suitable for vegans. Soy-based formulas are enriched with Vitamin D derived from lanolin, which is made of sheep wool. Mothers who do not breastfeed need specific guidance when it comes to choosing the right formula.
The more research goes into plant-based diets, the more we learn about their benefits. For example, as most saturated fats are found in meat and dairy products, cutting them down or out will automatically lead to a diet low in saturated fats. This is, in turn, associated with a lower risk of developing obesity or diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A hidden benefit of a plant-based family diet is that parents who educate themselves about a healthy and wholesome diet will teach these skills to their children from early on. And as early habits can last for a lifetime, this can be a great way to set children up for a lifelong healthy diet.
The essential nutrients in a plant-based diet
In a resource-rich environment, it can be possible to grow up healthily and follow a plant-based diet. Parents need to be educated by health professionals about potential nutrient deficiencies and how to avoid them.
- Iron: iron from plant-based sources is less well absorbed than from animal-based sources. A plant-based diet should be rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, green leafy vegetables and iron-fortified cereal products. Combining these foods with a food source of Vitamin C – a fruit for dessert, for example – enhances iron absorption
- Calcium: most non-organic plant-based milk products are supplemented with calcium. Other sources of calcium are soy products such as tofu as well as green leafy vegetables and almonds. Rice milk should be avoided in the first five years of life due to concerns about arsenic.
- Zinc: whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds help stock up on zinc. Processing and cooking these foods decreases the number of phytates, which can inhibit zinc absorption.
- Omega 3-polyunsaturated fatty acids: walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and vegetable oils, such as sunflower or rapeseed oil, are a great source of this essential fatty acid.
- Iodine: fortified plant-based milk or sea vegetables are good sources of iodine in a vegan diet. Sea vegetables should not be consumed in high amounts, though, as there are concerns about contamination with heavy metals.
- Vitamin B12: vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to severe developmental delays. Reliable Vitamin B12 sources are meat, dairy and eggs. Some plant-based milk alternatives are fortified, but infants and children on a plant-based diet should receive a vitamin supplement, which contains adequate amounts of Vitamin B12.
- Vitamin D: a Vitamin D supplement is generally recommended for all children under the age of four as sufficient Vitamin D supplementation from food is almost impossible – no matter if plant-based or not.
Specific attention should be given to the salt content of ready-made vegan meals. Recent research by Action on Salt has revealed that vegan meals often contain high levels of salt to enhance their taste. This can be especially harmful to children, who should consume low amounts of salt to prevent the development of high blood pressure.
At Little Tummy, we support parents on their weaning journey regardless of their choice. We have made sure to develop wholesome plant-based meals that provide a source of protein and plant-based fatty acids, such as rapeseed oil.
Quinoa is one of the few plant-based sources of protein that contain all essential amino acids. Our cold-pressure method (HPP) preserves heat-sensitive micronutrients, such as Vitamin C, which is needed to enhance iron absorption from plant-based sources. By using leafy green vegetables, we make sure to provide a source of calcium.
While the vegan trend seems to be one to stick around for longer, it is important to educate parents about the benefits and challenges of a plant-based diet for their children.
Providing easily accessible information as well as convenient ways to supplement micronutrients will be key measures to raise a healthy generation of plant-based eaters.
Dr Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani is a Private and NHS Paediatrician and Co-Founder of Little Tummy, the UK’s first baby food subscription service.
About the author
Dr Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani is a private and NHS paediatrician, and co-founder of Little Tummy, the UK’s first baby food subscription service.
Paediatrician, co-founder of Little Tummy
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Date published: 2 November 2020