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Can Kids Go Vegan?

By: Becky Ramsing

Last month in Italy a policymaker proposed a bill that would jail parents who impose a vegan diet on their children. The bill came on the heels of high-profile cases in which children were hospitalized for malnutrition as a result of vegan diets.

Is this extreme, or do children need meat in order to get enough protein, calcium and vitamin B-12? The popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets among young adults is growing. According to the Hartman Group, 12 percent of millennials are vegetarians, compared to 4 percent of Gen-Xers and 1 percent of Boomers. It is estimated that half of all vegetarians are vegan. And as these adults start families, they may extend their values and food choices to their children.

But children are not little adults. They have special nutrition needs for growth and development. That said, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a vegan diet can be adequate for a child as long as extra care is taken to provide necessary nutrients, especially the supplementation of vitamin B-12.

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet eliminates any food that originates from animals, and looks like this:

  • No meat, fish, animal fats or gelatin
  • No dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, goat’s or sheep’s milk
  • No eggs or foods containing eggs
  • No honey

What are the benefits of raising your child vegan?

Personal health. There is ample evidence that plant-based diets are associated with lower body weights, lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Plant proteins are higher in fiber, and provide potassium, magnesium, zinc and other important nutrients and phytochemicals, which have important health protective properties.

Environmental health. Disproportionate amounts of water, land, and resources are used to raise animals for food, and nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are due to production of meat, dairy, and eggs. As meat consumption rises around the world, the environmental impact will be even more devastating to the health of our planet. A vegan diet may mitigate some of this damage to the environment.

Animal welfare. Raising enough animals to meet the demand for meat requires large, densely populated operations that lead to the use of antibiotics and other drugs to prevent disease. Animals are often raised in poor conditions that contribute to illness, stress, and contamination. A vegan diet may mitigate some animal distress and abuse.

What are the healthy diet options?

There are many ways to raise a healthy child. As humans, we are fortunate there are many kinds of healthy diets—vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian, plant-forward or some combination.

Protein: the Right Amount and the Right Kind

Children need protein to grow. Protein needs vary depending on many factors, including rate of growth (which is not steady in children), size, age, the protein being consumed, and other dietary and physical factors. The table below shows the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for protein as children grow. You may notice that it’s not as much as you think!

Daily Protein Requirements ages 6 months to 14 years

Age RDA (g/kg) Average (grams)
6 -12 months 1.6 14 grams
1-3 years 1.2 16
4-6 years 1.1 24
7-10 1.0 28
10-14 1.0 45 males

 

46 females

Eating more protein than the requirement is considered safe and in most cases beneficial up to two times the RDA, which equates to 15-25 percent of total daily calories. If your child consumes a vegan diet, aiming for 25 percent more protein than the RDA is recommended because some plant-based proteins have a lower digestibility, and the RDA is based on a reference diet that is about 65 percent animal proteins.

In plant proteins, certain amino acids that are needed to build proteins in the body are limited in number. However, when eaten in combination with a variety of different foods throughout the day, the amino acid profile is complete. This is as simple as having bread with peanut butter or rice with beans.

A strict vegan diet limits the type of protein you are able to feed your child, but there are many excellent plant protein alternatives. Beans, lentils, hummus and soy products have more neutral flavors and are usually acceptable to children, especially when introduced at a younger age. Nuts and seeds are good protein sources and provide healthy fats. Whole grains provide a few grams of protein per serving as well. Check the labels and make sure your child is getting the amount needed for their age. It is best to spread the protein out to all three meals, rather than having one high protein meal, such as dinner.

Several plant proteins are common allergens in children: soy, tree nuts and peanuts. Allergies to soy and wheat are commonly outgrown by age 10, while fewer than 10 percent of children outgrow peanuts and tree nut allergies. Thankfully, seeds are not common allergens, so sunflower seeds are great alternatives to nuts. Sunflower seed butter and soy nut butter (if not allergic to soy) make great alternatives to peanut butter and are available in most supermarkets.

Be aware of overly processed vegan proteins. While tofu and tempeh are great protein sources, some processed soy-based meat substitutes are high in sodium and are produced with fillers, artificial flavors, colorings, gums, sugars and preservatives. Just like most other foods, the closer you stay to its original form, the better.

Other Necessary Nutrients

If you don’t consume dairy, make sure your child has a good source of calcium in their diet, especially as they approach their teen years. Vegans need just as much calcium as non-vegans. You may choose to supplement calcium, but you should also provide diet sources of calcium. The calcium in fortified soy milk and calcium-set tofu set appears to have a similar absorption rate as cow’s milk in vegans. There are also many plant foods that provide some calcium including broccoli, almonds, black beans, black strap molasses and some leafy green vegetables like kale and collards. Calcium fortified foods—juices, cereals, and other plant milks—can be good alternatives.

A variety of whole grains, colorful vegetables and fruits will provide most other vitamins and minerals, except vitamin B-12, which is found only in animal products. If your child is on a strict vegan diet, make sure you give him or her a B-12 supplement as directed.

A vegan diet is typically much lower in fat than a diet that includes animal proteins. Fat provides energy and essential nutrients for growth. Do not restrict fat but emphasize healthy oils—olive, canola, flax, nuts, and avocados. Omega-3 fats commonly in seafood are also found in marine algae (seaweed) and to a lesser extent, flaxseed and chia. There are now foods available that are fortified with these healthy fats, such as soy milk with DHA.

As with any child

  • Provide a variety of different and colorful vegetables and fruits.
  • Limit overly processed foods that lack the rich nutrients found in fresh foods.
  • Offer 100 percent whole grains – whole wheat, brown rice, whole grain pastas, quinoa and other fun grains.
  • Don’t fall prey to the thought that all vegan food is healthy! You will find that it’s not too hard to find junk food that fits in the vegan category: French fries, Fritos and Pepsi are all vegan! Limit sugar sweetened beverages, processed snack foods. Focus on fresh, whole food as much as possible.

Are you ready to try raising a child on a plant-based diet? Read So You Want to Raise a Vegan Child.

Image: USDA, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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