In recent years, the popularity of veganism has increased in the United States. According to Agribusiness magazine, in 2014, only one percent of U.S. consumers identified as vegan. By 2017, that number had increased a whopping 600 percent to six percent. Plant-based diets are being recommended over animal-based diets by medical organizations more often, and are also being requested more often by consumers. With the focus increasing on plant-based diets, some parents are wondering if veganism is safe for their children to follow.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that vegan diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle, including infancy, childhood and adolescence. Being appropriate for and being right for one’s child are two different things, however. As there is so much misinformation available online and among other sources about different ways of eating, it can be very difficult for parents to know what is best, medically and nutritionally, for their child. They may wonder if veganism is an appropriate eating style for children at all, and, if so, how to introduce their children to such a radical new way of eating and viewing food. Switching to a vegan diet can also be emotionally and socially difficult for children, which is another consideration parents must weigh. In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of vegan diets for children.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is not the same as a vegetarian diet. It is important to note that there are differences between these two styles of eating. While vegetarianism’s foundations are plant-based, vegetarians will often still consume dairy products and eggs. Veganism, on the other hand, excludes all forms of cruelty to and exploitation of animals for food, clothing or other purposes. The Vegan Society advocates a plant-based diet that eliminates all animal products and by-products. Vegans omit eggs, dairy, and honey from their diets, as well as avoid wearing clothing or using products that are made from animals or animal by-products.
The elimination of many types of foods from a diet is a concern for some parents who might be considering veganism for their children. We will explore the importance of nutrients for growing children and their ramifications within a vegan diet in the next section.
Considerations for Childhood Nutritional Levels
The unique nutritional needs of children, compared to adults, must be considered by any parents who are contemplating starting their kids on a vegan diet. Some micronutrients can be difficult to obtain when consuming a vegan diet. Let’s explore each nutrient category below that is vital to the health and growth of children.
Because children use more energy per pound of body weight than adults, they need to take in more calories daily than adults in order to maintain healthy growth and activity. How many calories a child needs in a day depends upon their weight, age and activity level. The caloric rule of thumb from the American Heart Association is the following:
- One year of age: 900 calories/day
- 2 to 3 years: 1000 calories/day
- 4 to 8 years: 1200 calories/day for females, 1400/day for males
- 9 to 13 years: 1600 calories/day for females, 1800/day for males
- 14 to 18 years: 1800 calories/day for females, 2200/day for males
Of course, more active children will need a higher daily calorie count. A vegan diet can pose an obstacle to adequate caloric intake for children, as foods that are plant-based tend to have fewer calories than foods that are animal-based,
To make sure that a vegan diet meets a child’s caloric requirement, parents should be sure to incorporate higher-calorie plant-based foods such as nuts, nut butters, soy products, granola and whole-grain foods into their child’s vegan diet.
Protein is necessary to build children’s muscles and to help keep a variety of bodily systems functioning properly. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that kids need the following amounts of protein each day:
- 2 to 3 years: 2 oz./day
- 4 to 8 years: 4 oz./day
- 9 to 13 years: 5 oz./day
- 14 to 18 years: 5 oz./day for females, 6.5 oz./day for males
Unfortunately, protein that is derived from plant-based foods is less accessible to the body and may not be as complete as protein from animal-based foods. Furthermore, it can be difficult to determine “ounce equivalents” for non-meat foods when trying to incorporate them into a child’s vegan diet.
Although most protein in non-vegan diets comes from animal products, it is possible to get enough protein without incorporating meat or dairy into one’s diet. Kids who are vegans must therefore eat more protein than those who consume animal-based foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has noted the follow ounce equivalents for vegan proteins:
- ¼ c. cooked beans, split peas, lentils
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp. peanut butter/nut butter
- ½ oz. seeds or nuts (kid-friendly choices include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, pistachios)
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The American Academy of Pediatrics says that most kids can achieve the necessary amount of fiber through eating five servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grain foods, per day. Another rule of thumb that they recommend to parents is to add five to a child’s age to determine how many grams of fiber are necessary per day. A five-year-old would need 10 grams of fiber daily; a 10-year-old would need 15 grams daily; and a 15-year-old should consume 20 grams of fiber per day.
Luckily, vegan diets are usually quite high in fiber. This can pose a problem, however, if the fiber fills a child up too much or too quickly, making them too full to eat more nutrients that they need to grow up strong and healthy.
Refined grains and certain fibers can help to give a child their necessary amount of fiber but not over-fill them, leaving them too stuffed to eat. This may include cereals, peeled fruits and cooked vegetables rather than raw.
Calcium is necessary in a child’s diet to fuel the growth of bones, teeth, nerves, and muscles and to help blood clot properly. According to the National Institutes of Health, the following are recommended daily intakes of calcium for children:
- 0 to 6 months of age: 200 mg/day
- 7 to 12 months: 260 mg/day
- 1 to 3 years: 700 mg/day
- 4 to 8 years: 1000 mg/day
- 9 to 13 years: 1300 mg/day
- 14 to 18 years: 1300 mg/day
The fact that vegan diets eliminate dairy products can pose a challenge to parents who are trying to get a child to consume enough calcium. Vegans have a higher risk of having an inadequate intake of calcium for this reason. Eating the alternative foods listed below, and taking calcium supplements, may also be recommended. Parents should always consult their child’s physician before giving any vitamin supplementation.
Foods that are high in calcium that aren’t dairy-based include tofu, collard greens, spinach, turnip greens, calcium-fortified orange juice, kale, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, soy milk, almond milk, soybeans, calcium-enriched breakfast cereals, pinto beans, chia seeds, whole-wheat bread, and apples.
Iron helps to strengthen children’s bodies and blood and is vital to their healthy growth. The National Institutes of Health recommend the following iron intakes for children:
- Birth to 6 mos. of age: .27 mg/day
- 7 to 12 months: 11 mg/day
- 1 to 3 years: 7 mg/day
- 4 to 8 years: 10 mg/day
- 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
- 14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day for males, 15 mg/day for females
Much iron in traditional diets comes from red meat, which vegans, of course, do not eat. It can be difficult for parents to help their children meet their daily iron requirements.
Other iron-rich foods that are good alternatives to red meat for vegan kids include: iron-fortified cereals, iron-fortified grain products, nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, potato, rice, mushrooms, cantaloupe, and leafy green vegetables. Additionally, eating iron-rich foods along with foods high in Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron in a child’s body. A child’s physician may also recommend iron supplementation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following intakes of Vitamin D for children:
- 12 months of age and younger: 400 IU/day
- 12 to 24 months: 600 IU/day
- 24 months and older: at least 600 IU/day to 1000 IU/day
Much vitamin D in traditional diets comes from fortified dairy products, fish, and eggs– foods that vegans do not eat.
Sunshine is still the best source of Vitamin D. It can also be found in some soy-based products and fortified cereals. Parents of vegan children should talk to their child’s doctor about Vitamin D supplementation through a multivitamin.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for creating and maintaining healthy blood cells and a healthy nervous system. The National Institutes of Health recommend the following B12 intakes for kids:
- Birth to six months of age: 0.4 mcg/day
- 7 to 12 months: 0.5 mcg/day
- 1 to 3 years: 0.9 mcg/day
- 4 to 8 years: 1.2 mcg/day
- 9 to 13 years: 1.8 mcg/day
- 14 to 18 years: 2.4 mcg/day
Most B12 in traditional diets comes from animal foods, but it is possible to achieve the recommended intake in a vegan diet through consuming B12-fortified foods.
Parents may choose soy drinks, fortified cereals, nutritional yeast added to foods, and veggie meat alternatives to help meet their vegan child’s B12 requirements. Supplementation may also be recommended by a child’s doctor.
Considerations for Individual Nutritional Needs
When it comes to starting a child on a new diet, one size never fits all. Parents must take many factors into consideration when deciding on a new way of eating for their children. Individual health concerns that may preclude or favor a child starting a vegan diet include:
- Food allergies– Children with allergies to certain foods might be resistant to veganism. This includes soy allergy, tree or peanut allergy, gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, and fructose malabsorption or intolerance. A good pediatric nutritionist can help to design a diet plan for a child with food allergies, however, if a parent wishes to start their child on a vegan diet.
- Anemia– If a child has iron absorption issues or anemia, going vegan can pose a challenge. It is possible, however, for a child with anemia to become vegan, through consuming more high-iron plant foods (think beans, peas, nuts) and foods that are high in Vitamin C to aid iron absorption.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder– Removing dairy from a diet, as happens in veganism, is often recommended as a treatment for autism. Children on the spectrum, however, often have emotional associations with food, preferring certain textures, smells, and colors. This can present a challenge to parents who want to start their autistic child on a vegan diet. A nutritionist can be consulted to help design a vegan diet plan for children with ASD.
- Kidney problems – Although plant-based diets are recommended in early-stage kidney disease, the need for consistently higher protein levels often keeps parents of children with kidney disease from starting them on a vegan diet. Many plant-based forms of protein have too much potassium or phosphorus to be healthy for those with kidney problems. This often precludes veganism for children with kidney disease.
- Irritable bowel syndrome– Children with IBS are often recommended a low FODMAP diet, with certain types of fiber and carbohydrates lessened or eliminated. This can pose a challenge to parents wishing to start kids on a vegan diet, as many plant foods are high in FODMAPs. A clinical dietitian can help to determine if a child’s IBS is compatible with a vegan diet.
- Level of physical activity- As vegan diets are often lower in calories than non-vegan diets, a child’s usual level of physical activity must be taken into consideration. Children who are quite active will need more protein and calories in their diets, and vegan diets can challenge parents in this way. A sports nutritionist can work with parents whose children are physically active to determine if a vegan diet would be beneficial for them.
Some children will inevitably have problems with the emotional and social aspects of following a vegan diet. They might not be able to partake in meals with their friends (which often includes kid-friendly foods such as cheese pizza or baked goods like cakes at a party). This might make vegan children feel different or left out. A restrictive vegan diet can also encourage weight loss and eating disorders in children. Every parent must weigh all of the considerations and decide for themselves whether veganism is right for their child.
Medical and pediatric experts have all agreed that, when done properly, starting a child on a vegan diet is not detrimental to their health and growth. As mentioned above, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has noted that vegan diets are appropriate for all stages of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, providing that a child’s vegan diet follows their recommendations for daily intake of calcium, Vitamin B12, iron, Vitamin D, fiber, protein and calories. Supplementation might also be needed and should always be discussed with a child’s doctor.
Medical researchers at the children’s hospital system Nemours also note that following a vegan diet can be beneficial for a child’s health, provided that nutritional requirements are met. They recommend that parents consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for guidance on how to begin and maintain a vegan diet for their child.
How to Educate Yourself About Childhood Nutrition
Every parent must weigh the pros and cons and determine what is the right style of eating for themselves, their families, and their children. Parents might even wish to become educated in nutrition and dietetics themselves. Those who wish to learn more about childhood nutritional requirements and the drawbacks and benefits of veganism and vegetarianism should consult the following resources: