Raising Children on a Plant-Based Diet: A Dietitian’s Guide
March 11, 2022
As adopting a plant-based diet has become more popular in recent years, so too has raising children on a plant-based diet. This has sparked much debate over whether or not it is safe to raise your child as a vegan or vegetarian.
To start off, let’s define the term ‘plant-based diet’. A plant-based diet is a broad term covering a whole spectrum of different dietary patterns which emphasise the consumption of mostly plant foods e.g. fruits, vegetables, legumes and pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds. This includes vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and flexitarian diets but also covers those without a specific label.
Is it Safe to Raise Your Baby/Child on a Plant-Based Diet?
In most instances, yes – raising children on a plant-based diet can be safe and nutritionally adequate to support proper growth and development.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states: “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits… These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence…”
Further to this, a 2019 study conducted in Germany that compared the diets of 430 vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous children concluded that “vegetarian and vegan diets provide the same amount of energy and macronutrients, leading to a normal growth in comparison to omnivorous children.”
A review published in 2019 supported this claim, finding that “well-planned vegan diets allow an adequate development of children from birth,” with the caveat that healthcare professionals should play an important role in guiding parents on how to avoid nutritional deficiencies and other serious health consequences.
Risks and Benefits of Raising Children on a Plant-Based Diet
Not only can it be safe, but there are some potential benefits to raising children on a plant-based diet. There is limited research into the benefits of vegan/vegetarian diets in children. However, there is some evidence to suggest that vegan and vegetarian kids when compared to omnivorous kids have:
- Reduced rates of childhood obesity and diseases related to it such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer in later life (Salinas et al., 2019, O’Connell et al., 1989)
- Potentially lower levels of inflammatory signalling molecules linked to insulin resistance and higher levels of anti-inflammatory markers (Ambroszkiewicz et al, 2018)
- Higher intake of fruits, vegetables and fibre and lower intake of discretionary snack foods high in saturated fats and added sugars (Weder et al., 2019)
Health aside, other significant benefits to raising your child plant-based include:
- Nurturing and fostering their sense of compassion for all living creatures from a young age
- Protecting the future of our planet – adopting a more plant-based diet supports environmental sustainability
However, this doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet is suitable for ALL children nor that raising your child plant-based doesn’t come with its own risks and challenges. The main risks associated with a plant-based diet include:
- Increased risk of inadequate intake of some essential nutrients including protein, essential fatty acids (in particular omega-3), iron, zinc, B12, calcium, iodine, selenium and vitamin D
- High intake of high fibre, lower-calorie foods can lead to inadequate energy (calorie) intake to support normal growth and development
Due to these risks, there are many factors that may hinder the safety and/or feasibility of your child being able to follow a strict vegan diet such as:
- Further dietary restrictions such as allergies and intolerances
- Medical conditions that impact nutrient absorption and/or increase caloric and nutrient demands
- Limited food availability
- Cultural practices and/or ability for your child to engage in certain social occasions
5 Top Tips For Raising Children on a Plant-Based Diet
Disclaimer: This is just an overview of the general tips to keep in mind – requirements change significantly depending on age so seeking more individualised advice is strongly recommended!
1: Ensure adequate caloric intake and monitor growth closely
As with all restricted diets, energy (caloric) intake needs to be monitored more closely. Plant-based diets are often higher in fibre and volume than omnivorous diets for the same amount of calories. This means they are more satiating, making it potentially difficult for kids to meet their caloric needs. A few tips to help your child meet their needs include:
- Focus on including calorically dense foods such as nuts/seeds, avocado, olive/flax oil at each meal
- Opt for cooked veg over raw veg as smaller in volume
- Peel fruits and vegetables to lower the fibre content
- Choose lower fibre protein sources such as tofu or soy milk over beans and legumes
We also recommend taking regular growth measurements to ensure growth is still tracking well as this is a good indicator that nutritional needs are being met. It is recommended that growth is tracked monthly then yearly as per the WHO for 0-2 year olds and CDC for 2-20 year olds growth charts and any plateaus or dips are brought up to your healthcare team.
2: Take note of the important nutrients that are at increased risk on a plant-based diet
Protein: Although protein requirements are much lower in kids compared to adults, getting enough protein is especially important in this period as infancy through adolescence is a key period for growth and development. Protein plays a key role as it is the main building block for developing, maintaining and repairing all the body’s tissues (such as muscles and organs as hormones and other key molecules necessary to keep the body running smoothly).
Plant-based sources: Tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), beans and legumes and to some extent nuts, seeds and whole grains. We recommend limiting mock meat products for kids (and avoid completely in babies and toddlers) as they are often high in sodium and saturated fats. Protein powders are also unnecessary and advised against for children. We recommend including a variety of different protein sources in the diet each day and distributing it across each meal/snack.
Iron: Iron is arguably one of the most important nutrients in early life due to its role in red blood cell production (to carry oxygen around the body) and brain development. Iron also plays important roles in maintaining energy levels and immune function. Deficiency can lead to anaemia which if left untreated can have lasting negative health implications for your child. Although there is an abundance of plant foods high in iron, the iron content of these foods is significantly lower than the iron content in animal foods. On top of this, our bodies are not able to absorb the iron in plant-based products very well. Due to this, iron requirements for those on a plant-based diet are 1.8x higher.
Plant-based sources: Tofu, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts/seeds (in particular pumpkin, sesame, hemp and chia seeds and cashews), some vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, beet greens and white potato) and fortified products. As iron is so crucial during infancy and childhood, we recommend including an iron-rich food at each meal and snack and pairing with a source of vitamin C to boost its absorption.
We have a comprehensive Plant-Based Iron Deficiency Guide available on our website.
Zinc: Essential for normal growth and development and in plays important roles in immune function and wound healing. Like iron, although abundant in many plant-based foods, it is slightly harder for our bodies to absorb it compared to the zinc in meat. As such, all plant-based eaters have slightly higher zinc needs than our omnivorous counterparts (about 1.5x more).
Plant-based sources: Tofu, beans and legumes, wholegrains, sundried tomato, pumpkin seeds, cashews and fortified products.
We have written a blog post about getting enough zinc on a vegan diet and how to optimise absorption.
Calcium: Plays an important role during childhood to build and maintain strong bones. It also assists muscle and nerve function. As plant-based diets exclude dairy products which are rich sources of calcium, it is important to make sure to swap out dairy products for calcium-rich alternatives as calcium deficiency can lead to poor health and a condition called rickets (causes soft and weak bones) if more extreme.
Plant-based sources: Fortified plant-based milks*, cheese and yoghurts (note that not all are fortified), calcium-set tofu, edamame, baked beans, kale, Asian greens, chia seeds, almonds, sesame seeds and tahini.
*Tips for choosing plant-based milks:
- Look for one with 120mg calcium per 100mL
- Opt for full fat options
- High protein options such as soy or pea protein-based are best
- AVOID rice milk completely before the age of 1
Read our article on getting enough calcium on a vegan diet for a list of calcium-rich foods and strategies to improve intake.
Vitamin D: This fat-soluble vitamin helps our body to absorb and use calcium making it an equally important nutrient for building and maintaining strong bones during childhood.
Plant-based sources: Small amounts are found in some plant-based products such as milks and margarines but these won’t meet requirements alone. 10-20 minutes per day of sun exposure is the most efficient way for our bodies to get vitamin D, however, there are many factors that can impact this.
Iodine: essential for brain function, metabolism and thyroid function. Deficiency in children has also been linked to lower cognition and IQ. As seafood is one of the main sources of iodine in the diet, it is another nutrient to be mindful of.
Plant-based sources: iodised salt, bread (except organic and gluten-free varieties) and nori sheets. We recommend avoiding excessive consumption of sea vegetables such as boiled seaweed and kelp products as they can contain very high levels of iodine which exceed safe levels of intake.
You may find our comprehensive article on iodine on a vegan diet helpful.
Vitamin B12: critical during infancy and childhood for nerve and brain functioning. Inadequate B12 intake during this period can cause psychomotor and cognitive delays and if not treated can result in permanent nerve damage.
Plant-based sources: B12 is the one nutrient on a vegan diet that is cannot be sufficiently consumed from food alone. There are some plant-based products which may be fortified with B12; however, due to low absorption rates by the body, these foods should not be relied on. Because of this, B12 supplementation is essential for all individuals on a plant-based diet.
Omega 3 fatty acids (in particular DHA): Omega 3’s are important during all stages of life. There are a few different types of omega 3 fatty acids – ALA, EPA and DHA. It is DHA that has the most health benefits, playing an important role in both brain and eye health. Adequate intake during early life is associated with improved attention, motor skills and memory later in life.
Plant-based sources (contain ALA only): Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and LSA mix. As the conversion rate of ALA to DHA in the body is limited (roughly only 1-10%), we also recommend including an algae oil-based omega-3 (DHA-rich) supplement. Speak to your dietitian regarding appropriate dosing.
3: Variety is key!
All foods are made up of a different profile of nutrients. This means that including a greater variety of foods on a daily and weekly basis increases the chances that your child will be getting the full range of essential nutrients that they need. Plus, dietary diversity also helps with improving gut health and changing up ingredients makes mealtimes much more exciting.
A few tips for adding variety into the diet include:
- Aim for 3 different colours of fruit/veg per meal
- Let your kids pick one new food each week to try and find a recipe that incorporates it (encouraging children to get involved in meal preparation is also a great tip to reduce fussy eating)
- Opt for a bag of mixed nuts or rotate between different options weekly
- Choose 3 different whole grains to include in the week and swap one out weekly for a new option (e.g. brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa)
- Rotate between different beans/legumes and/or opt for pulse mixes or tinned 4 bean mix
- Buy a new cookbook to help find new recipe inspiration
4: Supplement wisely
As dietitians we always preach a food-first approach. However, supplements can have an important place in the diet, especially when raising children on a plant-based diet. As mentioned previously, vitamin B12 is one nutrient that all plant-based eaters need to supplement during all stages of life once on solid food. Other recommended supplements may include vitamin D, omega-3 (DHA) and iron.
Types and dosing of supplements varies greatly depending on age, gender, medical history, blood work and diet so supplementation should always be tailored to your child’s specific needs. Getting the right regime is important as both under- and over-supplementing can have negative side effects on your child’s health. A dietitian can provide guidance on this.
5: Enlist the support of a dietitian well-versed in plant-based diets
Health professionals agree that whilst it is safe to raise children on a plant-based diet, it is strongly recommended that you only do so under the guidance of health and medical professionals including a dietitian (preferably one with good knowledge on both plant-based diets and childhood nutrition).
Not only will a dietitian be able to provide education on the nutrients at risk and the foods that contain them, but they can also provide guidance on how to incorporate these foods into a nutritionally balanced day of eating to make sure all needs are met.
A good healthcare team will also provide additional support and reassurance along the way to make sure you feel confident in your decision to raise your child plant-based. Continued engagement with dietetic support regularly throughout your child’s development is recommended as energy and nutrient needs drastically change throughout the early stages of life. Your child’s dietary needs will look very different from infancy to childhood to adolescence.
A plant-based diet can be safe and nutritionally adequate for children, however appropriate professional guidance is strongly recommended. If you are currently raising your child on a plant-predominant diet or thinking of transitioning them onto one, you can book them in for a consultation with our specialist fertility, pregnancy and paediatric dietitian Georgia D’Andrea.
This article was written by PNW Clinic fertility, pregnancy and paediatric dietitian Georgia D’Andrea.