Updated: Sep 20, 2021
Many parents worry about whether their children are getting enough of the right nutrients in order to thrive. Following a vegan way of life can provide a child with a variety of nutritious foods supporting healthy growth and development, but there are some important considerations.
Firstly, there’s the issue of nutritional deficiencies that often blights the vegan community. Also, whole-food plant-based diets tend to be less energy dense and so cramming the high number of calories into your child that they need to support rapid growth can seem daunting.
Then finally there’s the issue of pickiness. Food refusal and a love for everything beige is tricky for any parent to deal with but gets vegan parents circling back to the concern about nutritional deficiencies. Furthermore, there are many vegan junk foods on the market now and foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat which we need to be mindful of when buying highly processed foods. However, with time and careful planning, it is absolutely possible to ensure your child gets all they need from a well-thought-out vegan diet.
Below are 10 key things to consider when planning vegan children’s meals:
1.Energy - Young children don’t stop moving and need sufficient energy to support themselves physically and mentally. Plant-based diets tend to have fewer foods that are energy-dense and therefore vegans will usually need to eat more food to consume the same number of calories as non-vegans (1). Make sure that your child eats enough food throughout the day to match their energy requirements. Ensure that your child's energy is coming from healthy, whole foods and try to limit highly processed foods and foods high in added sugar.
2. Protein – Contrary to popular belief, most vegan children can easily achieve their protein requirements through a healthy, varied diet. Protein is required for the development of our muscles, supporting skeletal development and for the repair and growth of every tissue in our body! (2) Plants contain a wide variety of different proteins; however, these are not as efficiently absorbed as animal-based proteins (1). The key is variety. When you consume a mixture of different plant-based foods throughout the day you will get small amounts of all the different amino acids (the building blocks for proteins) required to support good health. High protein foods include Tofu, Quorn, legumes (beans, chickpeas and peas) nuts and lentils.
3. Iodine - Iodine can sometimes be overlooked but it is essential for producing thyroid hormones needed for optimal psychomotor and physical development at all stages of life (3). Iodine is high in foods such as dairy, eggs, fish, seaweed and iodised salt but most of these are off-limits or not part of a regular vegan diet. For this reason and due to a lack of iodine fortification of foods, it is advisable for all vegans to take a supplement that contains iodine.
4.Vitamin B-12 - Vitamin B12 has many functions in your child's body; it assists with the formation of red blood cells and keeps nerves and blood vessels healthy (4). Vitamin B12 needs careful consideration in a vegan diet as it isn't produced by plants (5). However, many food products now are fortified with Vitamin B12 (bread, breakfast cereals, fortified milk substitutes). It is still worthwhile ensuring that your child's daily supplement contains Vitamin B12.
5.Omega-3 - Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain development (6). Since our bodies are unable to make this type of fat it is important that we obtain sufficient amounts in the diet or through supplementation. Good sources of Omega-3 in your child's diet include chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts.
6. Vitamin D - Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and is vital for optimal skeletal development during childhood (7). The main sources in the UK diet for vegans are fortified cereals and cereal products and spreads. Mainly our Vitamin D comes from the sun! However, for at least 6 months of the year, the UK has no ultraviolet sunlight. Furthermore, due to high levels of melanin in the skin, dark skin produces even less vitamin D than white skin per unit ultraviolet light exposure (7). Therefore, in the winter months at least, Vitamin D supplementation of 10micorgrams is recommended (8)
7. Calcium - Calcium is an essential micronutrient playing a major role in growth, bone development, dental health, and cellular metabolism (8). A lack of dietary calcium along with Vitamin D deficiency can increase the risk of nutritional rickets, a skeletal deformation characterised by soft and weak bones (9). Since vegans do not consume dairy products, it is important to ensure your diet includes plant sources of calcium (green leafy veg, nuts and seeds) as well as foods fortified with calcium (milk, yoghurt and other dairy replacements and bread and cereal products).
8. Iron - There are two types of iron (haem and non-haem) and in plant-based diets, only non-haem iron is available (10). This type of iron is not as readily absorbed compared with animal sources of iron, so it is important to try and optimise your intake and there are a few things that can help! Vitamin C is known to increase the amount of iron absorbed from foods. Pairing Vitamin C rich foods with your meal, such as a glass of orange juice with iron-fortified breakfast cereal, can give non-haem iron a boost!
9. Salt - Many of us know that a lot of highly processed foods can contain alarming levels of salt. We sometimes forget when cooking meals from scratch that its just as important to watch the salt content of our foods. Especially if we are cooking for the whole family. A normal amount of salt to add to an adult’s meal could be completely inappropriate for a child. Children aged 4-6 years should have a maximum of 3g salt per day. Children aged 7-10 years should have a maximum of 5g of salt a day (11). Always check the labels of ingredients if you are unsure of how much salt or sodium they contain.
10. Keep it colourful! – Besides all the wonderful nutrients above, our bodies need phytonutrients and antioxidants, and these are abundant in fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, dried and tinned all count). Making your child’s plate colourful and varied looks so much more interesting and will ensure they get the right balance of nutrients they need to support their immune system and overall wellbeing.
For more information on exact nutrient requirements for your child and how that translates into meal planning please contact Health Nutritionist and book a 1:1 session to discuss your child’s specific needs.
Aimee is a family nutritionist with over 15 years of experience working in the food and drinks industry. She is passionate about coaching individuals to feel their best. Health and wellbeing all come from within and what better place to start than with your diet.
If you'd like to know more, get your free nutrition assessment to get the best nutritional advice for you.
(1) Kiely, M. E. (2021). Risks and benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets in children. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1-6. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S002966512100001X
(2) World Health Organization, & United Nations University. (2007). Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. 935. World Health Organization.
(3) SACN. (2014). SACN statement on iodine and health
(4) Vegan Society. (2021). Nutrition Overview. Vegansociety.com. https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutritionoverview-0
(5) Vegan Society. (2021). Vitamin B12. Vegansociety.com. https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/vitamin-b12
(6) BBC Goodfood. (2021). Is a vegan diet healthy for kids? Bbcgoodfood.com. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/vegan-diet-healthy-kids
(7) Taylor, S. N. (2020). Vitamin D in Toddlers, Preschool Children, and Adolescents. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 76(2), 30-41.
(8) British Nutrition Foundation. (2021). Children. British Nutrition Foundation. Retrieved 3 April, 2021, from https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/lifestages/children
(9) Zulf, M. M., Calder, A., Blair, M., Julies, P., Pall, K., Lynn, R., ... & Shaw, N. J. (2017). Dietary calcium deficiency contributes to the causation of nutritional rickets (NR) in the United Kingdom (UK): data from the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit (BPSU) NR survey. Bone Abstracts, 6.
(10) SACN. (2010). SACN Iron and Health Report. Public Health England. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-iron-and-healthreport
(11) Action on Salt (2021). Salt and children. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/salthealth/children/