“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
– The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (USA) 2016.
By Dr Malcolm Mackay
Change your own diet to whole foods, plant-based and there may be friends, relatives and health professionals who express concern for your health. Do the same for your child and you can expect some harsher criticism. From their perspective, we are starving the child of the meat and dairy foods they think we need for growth and feeding them nothing but vegetables. From our perspective a WFPB diet provides the child with optimal nutrition, more closely resembling the composition of foods that our ancestors have eaten over millions of years. While you can’t expect to change their deeply ingrained food beliefs, you can at least reassure them that you follow the advice of conventional dietetic organizations and the (Australian) Dietary Guidelines.
Infancy – The early months
The ideal infant food for the first 4-6 months of life is human breast milk. This is the only stage in life when a non-plant food is optimal. Its optimal even when its polluted by dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants that have been concentrated from the mother’s diet. A long term plant-based maternal diet will reduce heavy metal and chemical exposure but it’s never too late to start. A plant-based maternal diet will also prevent the infant from being exposed to potentially harmful cow’s milk protein fragments and other animal product components that can end up in the breast milk.
When formula feeding is required there are several choices. Ethical vegan families may opt for a soy-based formula. However, some plant-based experts recommend a cow’s milk based formula because it is more similar to human milk. A hydrolyzed, hypoallergenic formula may reduce the risk of autoimmune and other disorders associated with cow’s milk protein (see Infant formula resources below).
Infancy – Introducing Solid Foods
Starchy plant-based foods provide calories, nutrients and the pre-biotics that support a healthy gut microbiome as the infant gut transitions from milk to solids. Whole grains, prepared to a suitable consistency, are preferable to commercial rice cereals based on white rice. Unrefined plant foods were after all the only plant foods available throughout most of human history.
Meat, particularly red meat, is not a good source of iron or protein because of all the baggage it carries and the lack of fibre and protective phytonutrients. Red meat breaks down into an inflammatory mix of unfriendly gut microbes and toxic substances which may not be a good thing for the immature infant gut. While on the subject of protein, it is notable that human breast milk is very low in protein, several times lower than cow’s milk. Nature determined that a low protein diet is suitable for our relatively slow growing young.
Cow’s milk in any form is best avoided for a list of reasons that could fill this page – autoimmune disease promoting proteins, cow’s hormones, allergy, constipation, ear infections etc. Weaning is about making a gradual transition to food, not to a milk designed for baby cows. As the intake of breast milk or formula decreases it is advisable to introduce a vitamin B12 supplement and ensure adequate sun exposure or a vitamin D supplement. See PCRM guide: Nutrition For Kids (includes downloadable PDF)
Toddlers and Young Children
Vegetarians and omnivores need to know that a high consumption of cow’s milk in this age group has many adverse consequences – iron deficiency, constipation and poor appetite for solid foods. The nutrient needs of this age group are easily met simply by eating an adequate number of calories of a variety of mostly unprocessed plant foods (and taking that B12 supplement). A “well planned vegan diet” is simple. The core foods are the same as for adults – whole grains, tubers, legumes, vegetables and fruits with small amounts of nuts and seeds. Young children have relatively high calorie needs and require an overall diet of adequate calorie density – this means a relatively large proportion of starchy foods and may also include more nuts and seeds.
In regard to particular nutrients:
- Including flaxseed or chia seed will ensure an adequate intake of omega 3 essential fatty acids
- Sea vegetables (wakame, nori, but not kelp) are good sources of iodine for regions of Australia with low soil iodine levels
- A plant-based diet provides adequate protein including all the essential amino acids. There is no need to combine plant ‘proteins’ at meals
- Iron needs are best met by focusing on ‘whole’ plant foods. Foods low in iron – refined grains and zero iron foods such as vegetable oils – displace iron rich foods from the diet
- The recommended intake of vegetables and fruits is: 2.5 serves veg + 1 serve fruit for a 2-3yr old; 4.5 serves veg + 1.5 serves fruit for a 4-8yr old. 99% of Australian children don’t meet these guidelines
- See PCRM guide: Vegetarian Diets: Advantages for Children
Recent research suggests that early introduction of common food allergens may desensitize the immune system to later exposure. For example, including small amounts of peanut products in the infant’s weekly diet. The same might be considered for egg and milk protein containing foods, but only in trace amounts as we do not otherwise recommend these foods. Do not expose your child to foods already known to cause an allergic reaction.
A whole foods, plant-based diet fosters the development of a healthy gut microbiome and provides an optimal environment for the development of the immune tissues within the gut. This is likely to reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases and food allergies.
Dealing with criticism
Forks Over Knives Family by Alona Pulde and Matt Lederman gives excellent advice about raising children. This excerpt from p.73 is their advice for dealing with criticism:
“You may be surprised to hear that in certain cases the best first line of defense is no defense at all. Simply letting a challenge to your lifestyle choices pass you by without responding directly will get you further than you think. If nicely deflecting a question is unrealistic or uncomfortable, at the very least do your best not to internalize the questioner’s implied or explicit criticism. Sometimes knowing what NOT TO SAY is more important than knowing what to say. When you feel compelled to engage, you can reassure your questioner that there’s a wealth of evidence about the vast benefits of the whole-food, plant-based lifestyle; you’ve researched the subject; and most compelling of all, you’ve seen the benefits in your own life and are confident in your point of view”.
In this webinar recording (starting at 16m 28s) Doug Lisle addresses some important points about raising children:
- Pediatric Plant-Based Nutrition Quick Start Guide – The Plantrician Project (PDF)
- Nutrition for Kids: Plant-Based Diets for Infants, Children, and Teens – scroll down to download the free PCRM 28-page booklet ‘Nutrition for Kids: A Dietary Approach to Lifelong Health’
- Pulde, A., Lederman, M., Stets, M., & Wendel, B. (2016). Forks over knives family: Every parent’s guide to raising healthy, happy kids on a whole-food, plant-based diet. New York: Touchstone.
- Fuhrman, J. (2006). Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right. New York: St Martins Press.
- Dr Jackie Busse – Healthy children make healthy adults – New Normal Project podcast #61, interview by Dr Andrew Davies **NEW** (December 2019)
- Diet, Children, and the Future – John McDougall, MD
- Nutrition for Kids: Plant-Based Diets for Infants, Children, and Teens – PCRM
- Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start – PCRM. 5-page PDF, includes guidelines for introducing solid foods
- Vegetarian Diets: Advantages for Children – PCRM. 5-page PDF, recommends best foods to meet nutrient needs; includes peer-reviewed references
- Plant-Based Nutrition for Kids – Linda Carney, MD
- Parents’ Guide to Building Better Bones – PCRM
- McDougall’s Moments: Children Under Two – John McDougall, MD
- Plant-Based Eating for Kids and Transitioning to Plant-Based: Feeding Your Family – Emma Roche
- Raising a Vegan Kid – PCRM (55 min. podcast)
- Feeding Vegan Kids – Vegetarian Resource Group
- Raising Children On A Plant-based Diet – Leann Campbell
- 10 Tips From a Pediatrician: How to Feed Your Plant-Based Family Without Losing Your Mind – Reshma Shah, MD
- How I Answer 6 Common Questions as the Parent of a Vegan Toddler – Lauren Panoff, RD
- Raising Vegan Children – Amanda Benham (Aust. Dietitian)
- Infants – NutritionFacts.org videos
- Children – NutritionFacts.org videos
- National Health and Medical Research Council. (2013). Eat for Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. (N55a).
- National Health and Medical Research Council. (2012). Infant Feeding Guidelines: Information for health workers. Canberra: NHMRC
Peer reviewed articles
- Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970-1980. Free full-text available here
Infant formula: Soy or hydrolysed cow’s milk formula?
- Guidelines for the use of infant formulas to treat cows milk protein allergy – an Australian consensus panel opinion (2008)
- Phytochemicals and Phytoestrogens: My Greatest Concern: Bottle-Fed Infants – John McDougall, MD
- Soy and Health – PCRM
- See also our FAQ page: Are soy products healthy?
- PlantPlate kid-friendly recipes – Emma Roche
- Plant Based Family Down Under – Deb Plowman. Listen to this wonderful podcast interview with Deb where she discusses feeding children: Deborah Plowman Supports People To Succeed Plant-Based
- Plant-Powered Families: Over 100 Kid-Tested, Whole-Foods Vegan Recipes – Dreena Burton
- Dreena Burton’s recipe page
- Lunchbox Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Back-to-School – Dreena Burton
Page created 2nd October 2018
Last updated 2nd October 2018